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Is reverting back to virtual learning the future for COVID-19 outbreaks at schools? An epidemiologist weighs in

Churchland High School students switched to virtual Thursday after an outbreak among employees, but some experts say it may not be necessary moving forward.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — COVID-19 may be less troubling on your mind lately, considering the relaxed pandemic restrictions and an urge to return to a sense of normalcy.

However, a recent outbreak of the virus at Churchland High School in Portsmouth Wednesday is reminding people we're not out of the woods just yet. 

School leaders reported seven employees tested positive within seven hours and they wanted to take extra precautions, so they sent the students home to learn virtually.

Chesapeake Public Health Department Epidemiologist Lisa Engle said switching to all-virtual learning isn't really necessary anymore.

"Only in situations where it can't be controlled, would we recommend closure," said Engle. "We may say, 'You know, let's stop for five days in that wing or class,' but as far as a whole school, I don't see that happening again. I don't."

Engle even said going back to virtual learning could make things worse. She said because students are going back home, be it temporarily, they are sometimes left in the care of others because parents have to work. 

"Because we can't control it, then," said Engle. "Some parents would have to go to work and they're going to leave their sick kid with their friend who is babysitting two other kids. Well, now those two other kids may get sick, too."

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Engle said her department is seeing a higher number of COVID-19 cases, including in schools. She said while the numbers are increasing across Chesapeake Public Schools, it's not at a rate that would alarm her.

However, she said because at-home testing and other routes are becoming more common and people aren't reporting their positive test results as much, her department isn't getting the most accurate numbers.

She said the Chesapeake Health Department is always willing to help when it comes to testing and providing guidance through the pandemic.

Engle expects COVID-19 to surge in the fall season, similar to how we expect flu cases to peak, especially among students. She said going back to virtual learning may not be the answer, but staying vigilant and cognizant of other people's health is the best route.

"If you are feeling any symptoms at all, I would say #1: test. If you don't want to get a test, wear a mask. I think we've come to a situation where we have to think about others," said Engle. "I don't think it's a time to panic, but I think it's a time to still be aware."

Churchland High School leaders canceled all after-school and extracurricular activities through the weekend. School officials say students are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday.

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