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As COVID-19 cases surged over the holiday break, nearly every school division in Northern Virginia paused or suspended in-person learning during the first several days immediately following winter break. The lone exception is Prince William, where operations continued as usual Monday despite the county’s highest-in-the-region COVID-19 numbers.

In Prince William, Mondays are all-virtual instruction days for most students. But so far, there’s been no change in plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction to about 5,000 students Tuesday morning.

That’s despite the fact that Prince William has led the region for weeks in both its percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests and its rate of infection per capita. 

Any per capita infection rate above 20 is considered a “very high” case load, according to the RAND Corporation, which analyzes COVID-19 data for the Virginia Department of Health. Prince William County's was 57 as of Monday, Jan. 4.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recommends a percent-positivity rate below 5% before governments reopen. Prince William County's percent-positivity rate was 20.8% on Jan. 4, according to VDH data.

Prince William County’s COVID-19 numbers are higher than those in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, all of which have put either reverted to or continued all-virtual instruction due to concerns about rising COVID-19 metrics. Manassas and Manassas Park school divisions also remain virtual.

Prince William’s rising metrics have the Prince William Education Association continuing to call for all-virtual instruction, PWEA President Maggie Hansford said in a statement before the New Year’s holiday weekend.

“PWEA asks that the school board and division hold a meeting as soon as possible to discuss reverting to virtual-only education, as so many other districts in Virginia are doing, in light of the rising Covid-19 threat to our teachers, staff and students,” Hansford said. “We believe it is irresponsible to return to school January 4th, given the increased risk to everyone in the buildings.”

Neither Superintendent Steven Walts nor school division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta returned an email for comment last week.

But School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, an ophthalmologist and a strong advocate for in-person instruction despite the pandemic risks, said he “remains committed” to the school division’s return-to-school plan and trusts Walts and the school division’s pandemic team to make any changes in the school division’s plans if necessary. Lateef also said the school division has worked hard to ensure mitigations are in place to prevent outbreaks in schools.

“From my standpoint, no change at this time,” Lateef (At Large) said Thursday, Dec. 31. “School divisions around the nation have been operating a hybrid model with worse health metrics for months, and schools have not been seen as a source of major outbreaks or a source of community spread.”

Lateef did not specify which school divisions are operating with in-person instruction with higher COVID-19 percent-positivity rates than Prince William’s 20%.

“I recognize the concerns of the PWEA,” Lateef added. “But I remain committed to the process our school division has laid out for our return to learning plan. Dr. Walts and the pandemic team remain vigilant in their daily monitoring of the health metrics and weighing that against our outstanding mitigation efforts.”

Prince William schools are tracking cases among students and staff on their website. The dashboard listed 324 cases in December, but none have so far met the state health department's definition of an outbreak, according to the school division.

More students slated to return to schools Jan. 12

On top of the 5,000 students currently attending school in person, the school division is preparing to allow second- and third-grade students to return for hybrid instruction on Jan. 12 and 13, followed by fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and ninth-graders on Jan. 26 and 27. Remaining high school students are scheduled to return on Feb. 2 and 3. All students can choose to remain virtual if they want to.

School Board member Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) continued to counter Lateef’s position, saying last week that she would like Walts to minimize the risk to teachers and students, much as he does with weather-related closures.

“Can’t we give a Code Red to teachers and staff because of the rising COVID cases, and err on the side of caution?” Jessie asked.

Health experts say the current surge in COVID-19 cases is tied to indoor gatherings over Thanksgiving and that numbers are expected to spike again in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s gatherings.

Jessie said she’s particularly concerned that “tier 1” teachers – those with underlying health conditions that place them at risk for more severe complications to COVID-19 – are being told they must return to school buildings despite the rising COVID-19 cases and community spread in the county.

Jessie said she continues to receive numerous emails from teachers who say they are “terrified” to go back to teaching in person because of underlying health conditions.

“Based on these numbers, I do not personally think it’s safe, but I don’t have a say,” Jessie added.

Jessie continued to call on Walts to provide more information on the metrics he and the pandemic team are using to determine it’s safe for students to return to schools.

Jessie said the school division is putting teachers – particularly those vulnerable to COVID-19 or those who have family members who are – in a difficult position.

“For one thing, they’re terrified of the virus, and secondly they’re terrified of losing their jobs or being looked at in a different light [as if] they don’t care about children,” Jessie said.

Brentsville School Board Representative Adele Jackson was the only other school board member to respond to a request for comment last week. She reiterated that the school board has given Walts the authority to pause in-person instruction if he deems it necessary.

“I’m constantly watching the numbers, and I trust he and his staff are in constant communications with the health department,” Jackson said. “I trust that he is prioritizing staff and student safety.”

Hansford said teachers are frustrated that Walts and the school board are not reacting to the rising COVID-19 cases or even fully explaining their decision-making process for allowing in-person instruction.

Hansford says she’s always sought to be “extremely measured” in her calls for the school board to ensure teacher and student safety and said teachers are “not privy” to the decision-making process, which is one reason the union is working toward establishing a collective bargaining agreement with the school division. Collective bargaining for public employees will be possible beginning on July 1 as a result of a new law passed last year.

“If we had collective bargaining, we would be part of these discussions,” Hansford said. “We wouldn’t have to keep asking. We would know.”

At a Dec. 3 school board meeting, Associate Superintendent Denise Huebner said the school division’s status for in-person instruction could change under a set of dire circumstances, including “a change in our overall community’s medical health or [its] ability to provide health care;” an uncontrollable outbreak in schools that can’t be mitigated through normal protocols; an inability to staff schools; or a decision to halt in-person learning by Gov. Ralph Northam.

On Sunday night, as teachers prepared to return to schools the next day, Hansford said teachers still don’t understand what it will take to close schools for in-person instruction. She said some tier 1 teachers have already left their jobs rather than risk exposing themselves or their families to the virus, while others have already been working inside schools because they can’t afford to quit.

Hansford also said she wonders why Prince William County school division officials believe it’s safe for students and teachers to return to schools amid the current surge of COVID-19 cases when other school divisions have decided it’s not.

“I wonder how we’re different,” Hansford said. “Our numbers are the highest and there should be something said about that.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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