WINCHESTER — The Winchester Education Association asked the city's School Board on Monday night to pause in-person instruction for two weeks as COVID-19 rates continue to rise in the area.
"With infection rates across the Commonwealth increasing, with positive cases still increasing in our health district and with a significant number of Winchester public school teachers, staff and students out with illness or under quarantine, the WEA would like to call for a two-week pause to buy us time to get some of this under control," said Mike Siraguse, president of the WEA and a teacher at Handley High School.
The WEA is a chapter of the Virginia Education Association, which was established in 1863 and describes itself as a "union dedicated to advancing quality instruction and curriculum, adequate funding, and excellent working conditions for Virginia public employees."
Last Friday, VEA President James J. Fedderman called for all Virginia school divisions to shift to 100% virtual instruction until staff members can be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Starting today, K-12 teachers are eligible under the second phase, 1B, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia.
"We know vaccines are around the corner and we need to get shots into arms quickly to build our immunity wall of protection," Siraguse told board members. "We need to be proactive not reactive."
City teachers and WEA leaders were among those who expressed support Monday night for a two-week pause in in-person instruction.
"There can be no doubt that there is no replacement for quality in-person instruction," said Holly Sanders, WEA vice president. "However, committing to a limited suspension of in-person learning demonstrates that staff health and safety is respected and valued."
Sanders said Winchester Public Schools administrators have maintained a "reactive process" to mitigate and respond to the spread of the coronavirus.
"We are asking that you be proactive and that you take action now before the virus can spread, not wait until it already has," Sanders told board members.
In November, the city school division switched to 100% online learning for four days when the increase in positive COVID-19 cases impacted the division's ability to effectively complete COVID-19 contact tracing.
Since March, 1,841 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the city of Winchester, along with 79 COVID-related hospitalizations and 17 deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health. In the school division, 15 staff and 13 students currently have COVID-19, while 12 staff and 70 students are under quarantine for being in contact with a positive case.
As WEA leadership urged a temporary halt in in-person instruction, the board approved modifications to a recent decision to allow Handley students to participate in the Virginia High School League winter sports season. The board's approved modification on Monday night, per WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum's recommendation, removed the requirement that all athletes involved in contact sports be required to participate 100% online learning.
Attending Monday night's in-person work session included WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, School Board Chairwoman Marie Imoh, Vice Chairwoman Karen Holman and board members Elyus Wallace, Mike Birchenough, Erica Truban, Carmen Crawford and Bryan Pearce-Gonzales. The meeting, which had limited in-person capacity, was also streamed live on YouTube.