Some parents demanded their children return to school to keep them from falling behind or suffering social isolation. A teacher told of her family’s harrowing struggle with COVID-19 and urged that instruction stay mostly online. Several parents expressed frustration with last spring's virtual instruction, which they said was often lacking.
More than 60 parents and teachers offered a range of opinions during a special meeting of the Prince William County School Board held Tuesday to hear community input on reopening schools in August.
The meeting occurred on the eve of Superintendent Steven Walts’ presentation tonight of a draft plan for reopening schools. The school board will hold a work session at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, to hear and discuss the plan, which the school division has said is the result of several return-to-school task forces involving 90 teachers, administrators, school staff members and parents.
Tonight’s meeting will also be held virtually and can be watched at pwcstv.com, by clicking on the “Watch Live” link, or by tuning to Comcast Channel 18 or Verizon FIOS Channel 36.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the board stayed mostly quiet to provide parents and teachers the opportunity to weigh in.
Many parent speakers expressed their disappointment with virtual instruction that began in April after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam closed all public and private schools for the remainder of the school year.
The online instruction was optional and covered no new material. Students were encouraged to participate and could work to improve their grades. But grades could only go up – not down – and final grades were computed using only the first three marking periods.
In the fall, Virginia public schools are required to provide new instruction but may elect to do so only virtually or in person with several restrictions, including distancing of at least 3 feet between staff and students at all times.
That recommended spacing – 3 feet – is a reduction from the 6 feet Northam’s reopening guidance for schools stipulated when it was initially released in early June. The amended guidance was quietly released Tuesday in a joint letter from Virginia’s Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver and State Superintendent of Schools James Lane.
The letter said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 6 feet distance to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission but notes the World Health Organization recommends 1 meter, or approximately 3 feet. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics says spacing “as close as 3 feet may have similar benefits if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness,” the letter said.
“In areas where the community transmission of COVID-19 is more substantial, distancing of at least 6 feet will need to be strongly considered; this guidance may be subject to change as we learn more,” the letter added.
Some parents referenced the change in their remarks to the school board. The revised guidance could impact the number of students allowed in classrooms or on school buses in school divisions that choose to offer in-person instruction.
Walts has not yet said whether in-person instruction will be offered or what it will entail. That information is expected to be discussed during tonight’s 5 p.m. meeting of the school board.
Among parents and teachers who urged the school board to teach classes only online was Colgan High School teacher Catherine Smart, who said she, her husband and their two teenage sons are still recovering from COVID-19, which they contracted in June.
Smart, who teaches German, said her family has made four trips to the emergency room over the course of their illness and have experienced symptoms ranging from almost nothing to “violent vomiting” and debilitating headaches and fatigue. She added that despite their illness, none of them has yet to have had a fever, which is often used to screen people for COVID-19.
Smart said her family’s ordeal began when her son contracted the virus and unknowingly spread it to the rest of the family “in less than an hour.”
“All four of us had different symptoms. My 19-year-old had virtually none. My 17-year-old experienced violent vomiting that was so harsh his back seized up. He was disoriented and couldn’t stand on his own. My husband and I had debilitating headaches, muscle aches and chills, hallucinations, dizziness, and extreme fatigue. Symptoms have lasted a month. There was at least a week apiece where my husband and I were unable to care for ourselves, or our sons. I couldn’t even sit up without help. My husband is still not cleared to go back to work,” Smart said in her remarks, which she shared in print online.
Smart noted that even social distancing at the high school level would still result in as many as 1,000 people in the building at most schools.
“Most staff would come in contact with large numbers of the student population. There is no ability to rotate faculty. This is an exponential risk for staff, and an unbearable human cost,” Smart wrote. “…My son does not feel comfortable attending in-person schooling at our beloved Woodbridge High School. His fear of becoming ill with this virus again is so great that he is willing to miss his senior year of in-person high school to ensure his physical wellbeing. That speaks volumes.”
The school board also heard from Dr. Julia Biggins, a mother of four Prince William students in kindergarten through 11th grade. Biggins said she is an infectious disease scientist who is involved with the U.S. Department of Defense’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biggins, who also posted a written copy of her remarks online, said she “strongly urge[s]” the school board to consider full distance learning for all but the students who most need in-person instruction, “such as children in special education programs, CTE programs, [who] are learning English as a second language, or [who] come from vulnerable home environments or have no homes at all.”
“As the recent data has demonstrated, this country is nowhere near its exit from the coronavirus pandemic. Although the currently reported case numbers in Virginia are low, it would be irresponsible of us as parents and school administrators to send our children back to indoor classrooms to potentially contribute to further spread of the virus,” Biggins added.
Biggins further said she disagrees with the AAP, which has stated its support for reopening schools, saying she believes reopening schools could potentially be worse for students’ mental health than continuing to learn from home.
“According to what the research has shown about virus transmission indoors, singing in music class, shouting in PE class, taking part in school assemblies and some classroom activities would have to be canceled,” Biggins wrote. “Our children would have to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart from their friends and teachers at all times for our efforts to be maximally effective. How can we ask our children to endure this? True virtual learning (not what was experienced in the spring when schools closed) will be consistent and still provide students with the ability to interact with their teachers and peers.”
Biggins said if schools must reopen, mask-wearing should be mandatory and the school division must have a plan for when students, teachers or staff test positive for COVID-19.
“This plan must work to quickly identify positive individuals, rapidly isolate them and clean the affected areas thoroughly all while maintaining clear and timely communication with the community,” she wrote.
Several other speakers, including a woman who said she is a nurse who cares for COVID-19 patients, said they believed students must return to in-school instruction because of the risk of falling behind academically and the ill-effects of social isolation.
Others expressed concerns about a range of issues, including, a lack of electronic devices for each student; older students having to act as babysitters – and tutors – for younger siblings in families where parents must work outside the home; and whether schools that lack windows or have aging ventilation systems will contribute to the spread of the virus.
Melinda Vaikasiene, a parent of five who and a founding member of the PWC Special Education PTA, said whatever happens, school division leaders must give “strong community guidance” to all school principals and teachers to ensure effective instruction across the school division when schools reopen, even if it's only for online instruction.
“This past spring, Prince William County schools did not give a strong community guidance to meet the needs of our students. Our school community failed our teachers and our students. This cannot happen again,” said Vaikasiene, who also posted her comments online.
“We need a strong community guidance to ensure that every student has their needs met, and that when it is time and safe to open the doors of the schools to everyone, that all students are physically and mentally strong and ready to continue their learning.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org