All Prince William County students who choose the school division’s proposed “hybrid plan” could return to schools for in-person learning by the start of the third quarter, which begins Feb. 2, under a plan the school board approved early Thursday despite criticisms from some members who said it lacks a sense of urgency about getting students back in school.
The plan is tentative and will depend on local COVID-19 health metrics and available staffing, Superintendent Steven Walts told the school board during yet another marathon and sometimes contentious meeting that began on Wednesday, Oct. 21, and stretched beyond 1 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 22.
The latest schedule is the result of the school board’s request two weeks ago that Walts present a plan detailing when middle and high school students could return for in-school instruction after the superintendent left those grades out of the schedule he presented Oct. 7.
School board members peppered Walts with questions and challenged him to explain why the plan could not be sped up to allow more grades to return for in-person learning more quickly. In response, Walts noted several challenges, including that the school division is still in the process of upgrading its internet bandwidth to allow teachers to instruct students in the classroom and at home concurrently and is still awaiting tens of thousands of computers and other equipment.
The school division is expecting about 8,000 internet cameras and headsets for teachers to be delivered in November and is not sure when an additional 34,000 computers that have been ordered will arrive. Right now, many elementary school students do not have their own computers as the school division only had enough devices to ensure that every family had at least one computer – not every student, Walts said.
School Board Vice Chair Loree Williams (Woodbridge) made the motion to accept the plan, which was approved in a split vote with school board members Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), Adele Jackson (Brentsville), Diane Raulston (Neabsco) and Lisa Zargarpur (Coles) voting to support the schedule.
Voting in opposition were School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef (at large), Potomac District Rep. Justin Wilk and Gainesville District representative Jen Wall.
Return dates staggered from November to February
The hybrid plan aims to allow willing students to return to school for in-person learning two days a week while continuing to learn from home the other three. About 40% of Prince William County students indicated in a recent school division survey they want to return to school in person, while about 60% have said they wish to remain virtual.
Already, about 1,200 special education students and some learning English are already attending school four days a week.
The plan Walts laid out Wednesday retains the phased introduction to hybrid instruction he proposed two weeks ago for pre-K through 5th grade students. The youngest students, those in pre-K and kindergarten, will begin the hybrid plan first during the week of Nov. 10, while first-grade students will return during the week of Dec. 1.
On Nov. 16, some high school students in career and technical education classes will return to schools for three-hour sessions on Mondays, either from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. or from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Second- and third-grade students will return during the week of Jan. 12 and 13, while students in fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth grades are currently scheduled to return on Jan. 26-27.
The rest of the middle and high school grades -- seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th -- are sceduled to return during the week of Feb. 2.
School board reaction
Lateef, Wilk and Wall said they were disappointed in the plan and still not convinced that more students could not go back sooner.
Lateef, who is an ophthalmologist, said he could not support the schedule because he believes the school division should be acting with a greater sense of urgency to return students to in-person learning.
Lateef acknowledged that Prince William is the only school division in Northern Virginia to bring some special needs students and those learning English back into schools but said he believes pre-K through third grade students should already be back in school buildings under the current local COVID-19 metrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“If not now, when? What will change in a month? What will change in three months, what will change in a year or two?” Lateef said, noting that even with an effective vaccine, society will still be dealing with the threat of COVID-19 infections – and the need for masks, frequent hand-washing and disinfection – for perhaps three or four more years.
Other school board members, however, including Jessie and Williams, said it the school board should not challenge the judgments of Walts and his fellow administrators, who stressed the phased-in schedule was least disruptive to students and staff and offered the best chance at returning students to school safely.
Jessie, in particular, came to Walts’ defense and scolded her fellow board members for challenging Walts’ plan, saying she was “disappointed with the board.” Jessie, a retired elementary school principal, noted that most of the board members had never worked with elementary school-age children and do not understand the challenges at hand.
“You have to go with people who do the work,” Jessie said. … “For the parents, we owe them a plan. … But parents will not forgive us if harm comes to their children because we begin to get cavalier about the virus. This virus is nothing to play with.”
Walts, too, reiterated that his plan puts the health and safety of students and staff first – “something we’ve always prided ourselves on doing,” he said.
Walts also said the school division had already had 100 cases of COVID-19 reported among students and staff and noted serious cases requiring hospitalization had been suffered by a school division director and an assistant principal.
Associate Superintendent Denise Huebner and fellow school division health administrators again noted that Prince William County’s COVID-19 health metrics place the school division in the “higher” and “moderate” risk levels for community transmission of the virus and that the school division could not guarantee 6 feet of social distancing in all instances.
It was also noted, however, that 6 feet of distancing likely would be easier in some school buildings and classrooms given that the majority of students have elected to remain in virtual instruction.
Community input mixed
The school board has been lobbied in recent weeks by both parents who are critical of virtual learning and want their students to return to in-person learning as well as by members of the Prince William Education Association, the local teachers’ union, who have expressed safety concerns and pressed for virtual instruction “for the foreseeable future.”
More than a dozen parents and students in favor of returning students to school as soon as possible spoke during citizens’ time to express their dissatisfaction with virtual instruction.
Students complained of an overwhelming workload, too much screen time and missing their fellow students.
“School doesn’t feel like learning anymore but like a never-ending cycle of Zooms and downloads,” said high school student Sophia Quint-Guitierrez, a Colgan High School student.
A few teachers also spoke, urging the school board to understand that teachers, too, are overworked by virtual instruction but also noting that a more rushed return-to-school schedule would be too risky.
Daniel Foose, an elementary school music teacher, said returning students to school more quickly would be “at best misguided with cases already increasing as we head into winter.”
Any plan, he said, “must be rooted in data, CDC guidelines and reason.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org