Prince William County students could opt to attend school two days a week – or stay home and receive all their instruction online – under the plan the school board tentatively approved Wednesday for the coming school year.
In a non-binding straw vote taken at the end of a seven-hour work session, the school board unanimously agreed on a plan that would allow as many as 50% of students to receive in-person instruction inside the school building at one time, an arrangement that would have students in school two days a week and working online from home the remaining three.
The plan would split each school’s students into two groups, with one group attending classes in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the other attending school on Wednesdays and Fridays. Monday would be reserved for online-only instruction and teacher planning.
“Highly vulnerable students,” a group that was not specifically defined but understood to be mostly special education students, would be allowed to attend school four days a week. Teachers’ children from the age of kindergarten through 11 would also have the option of attending school four days a week as space allows.
The plan was one of three options Superintendent Steven Walts presented the board during the July 8 meeting. The other two plans would have kept all instruction online or would have allowed students to attend classes in-person just one day a week with the remaining four days of instruction delivered online.
3-feet social distancing rule critical to local plan
It appears that the plan the school board backed – dubbed the “50% plan” – was made possible only because of the last-minute decision by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration this week to allow only 3 feet of social-distancing space in schools if both students and teachers are wearing masks.
Only the plan that involved students attending school one day a week – dubbed the “25% plan” because it would allow up to 25% of a school’s students in a building at any one time – would allow what Walts called “the gold standard” of social distancing: the ability for students and staff to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other at all times.
In some of Prince William County’s largest and most overcrowded schools, the 50% plan would allow more than 1,000 students in school buildings at one time. Battlefield High School, which is projected to have 2,986students next year – which is more than 900 students over its capacity – could have as many as 1,493 in the building.
Micky Mulgrew, associate superintendent for high schools, said the numbers would require schools to stagger the times students enter and exit the buildings as well as the times they switch classes and move through the hallways. Hallways would likely also be restricted to one-way traffic.
The school board did not question those accommodations or seem dissuaded by the fact the 50% plan they tentatively chose allows only 3 feet of social distancing.
By contrast, Potomac District School Board Representative Justin Wilk asked Walts to make clear to parents that the school board does not have the choice of sending all students back to school five days a week under the current state and federal guidelines.
Schools’ “capacity is limited by the social distancing requirements,” Walts said. “So if you set it at 100% capacity, there’s no way you could mitigate that. So school boards that decide to do that would open themselves up to liability in a huge way.”
Virginia officials revised the state’s guidelines for schools to allow only 3 feet of social distancing on Tuesday, nearly a month after the state’s initial guidance recommended 6 feet. The change was made in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, which call for 1 meter of space between students, or about 3 feet, as well as guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to a letter penned by Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver and State Superintendent James Lane.
Because of the reduced social distancing, the school division will have to take additional mitigating measures aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, including mandating that all students and staff over age 10 wear face masks while inside the school building.
Other steps, such as daily health screenings of both students and staff, will likely also be necessary, Deputy Superintendent Keith Imon told the school board.
The school board won’t know for sure how many students will be present in each building until parents indicate whether their students will opt for either the two-day-a-week or all-online option.
According to a parent survey conducted at the end of June and beginning of July, about 79% percent of parents indicated they planned to send their children back to school, while about 20% said they would not, according to a presentation by Jennifer Cassata, the school division’s director of accountability.
Teachers’ survey, parent options
Teachers will be surveyed as to whether they prefer teaching in the classroom or online. Only teachers who have physical or medical conditions that would place them at a high risk for severe complications from COVID-19 as outlined in CDC guidelines would be assured of the ability to opt out of in-person instruction, said Amy White, the school division’s director of human resources.
The school division will try to honor the requests of teachers who do not meet the CDC guidelines but still prefer to teach only online, but that will largely depend on overall staffing needs, White said.
The school board will take a final vote on the plan next Wednesday, July 15. Soon after that, parents will be asked to indicate their choice for next year in the online “ParentVue” portal.
In a separate vote, the school board will decide whether to comply with Walts’ request for a two-week delay to the start of the new school year to Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
School was originally scheduled to begin on Tuesday, Aug. 25. The extra time will allow for teachers to receive special training on COVID-19 as well as on the school division’s new online management system, “Canvas,” Walts said. The later start date likely will not extend the school year, according to the state’s current guidance, Cassata said.
If the school board adopts the plan next week, its return-to-school schedule will mirror those that both Fairfax County and Loudoun County schools are likely to choose, Walts said.
Also, Manassas and Manassas Park school officials have indicated a desire to follow Prince William County’s lead and likely will adopt a similar plan, Walts said.
Impacts on classrooms, buses
Before taking their straw vote, the school board heard a nearly three-hour presentation regarding the seven-part plan to return to school, which included information about the school division’s health plan, its cleaning and sanitation plan, its plan for serving breakfasts and lunches, its plan for busing children to and from school and its plan to combine in-person and online learning, which included specifics such as how many students would be allowed in each classroom and on school buses under both the 25% and 50% options.
School buses that usually hold 77 elementary school students will hold 24 under the 50% plan. But only about 12 middle and high school students would fit on a bus because they are too tall for the bus seat backs to provide a sufficient social-distancing barrier, which would require them to sit in every other seat, said Al Ciarochi, associate superintendent for support services.
The low numbers likely will require individual school bus drivers to make multiple runs in the mornings and afternoons, Ciarochi said.
The number of students permitted in a classroom under the 50% plan will vary according to the size of the classrooms. According to examples presented by two school principals, classrooms that generally fit as many as 28 or 30 students during a normal school year would likely fit about 16 or 18 students under the 50% plan. The same rooms would fit eight or 11 students under the 25% plan.
For online learning, all high school students will be issued school division electronic devices by August so they can complete their online coursework. All high school students will be issued the same kind of device, allowing for easier management of online learning, by November, said Matt Guilfoyle, associate superintendent for communications and technology services.
The school division has hired 161 teachers to work over the summer to create course content for the nearly 7,000 classes offered by the school division for students from pre-K to 12th grade, said Rita Goss, associate superintendent for student learning.
The school division is taking the step to lighten the workload for teachers, who will likely be teaching three groups of students next year: the two groups who opt for in-person classes on varying days and a third group of students who opt for online-only instruction.
The school division will only complete part of the work over the summer but aims to be at least one quarter ahead of where the students and teachers are in the coming year, Goss said.
School board concerns, goals
School board members praised Walts’ staff for their hard work but also expressed a litany of concerns about issues ranging from whether principals will be required to purchase sufficient cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and hand-sanitizer for teachers, to whether teachers will be tasked with constantly cleaning their rooms and whether there would be enough adults in school buildings to sufficiently monitor students’ adherence to social distancing. School division leaders offered sometimes vague answers, saying the school community would work together to accomplish such tasks.
School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, himself a physician, said he was first concerned about students’ and teachers’ health and safety and secondly about the quality of instruction the school division planned to deliver students.
Lateef raised concerns, for example, about the lack of real-time instruction in the school division’s plan for students who opt for only online coursework. Goss said teachers would be available for one-on-one interaction with students online but that staff limitations and school buildings’ online bandwidth prevented teachers from broadcasting their classroom teaching in real time.
School board members asked administrators to compile and post a series of “frequently asked questions” on the school division’s website so that parents and teachers can easily find answers to questions about the return-to-school plan.
What happens if a student or teacher gets COVID-19?
When asked what would happen if a student or teacher tests positive for the coronavirus, Denise Huebner, associate superintendent for special education and student services, said the school division would work with the Prince William Health District, which would oversee the investigation and contact-tracing relative to positive cases. The school division would also notify parents through principal letters to the community, she said.
“We definitely will be utilizing letters to the community and to parents,” Huebner said.
“We are trying to create a low-risk environment, but we are not able to get rid of all the risk,” Huebner said.
Exposed and sick students and teachers likely would have to self-quarantine for 14 days. Teachers would receive extra leave under the federal COVID-19 relief act, White said.
Lateef said it would take the cooperation of the entire school division to ensure students and teachers are as safe as possible and that the school division delivers quality instruction.
“This is unprecedented. This is unbelievable, what we’re going through and what we have to plan for … If someone made this up, we’d have never bought the novel, it would have been totally fantasy fiction -- beyond that,” Lateef said.
“Instruction and safety are absolutely critical. From my personal standpoint as a physician and as the school board chair … I want to reassure the public that I care deeply about the safety of our teachers and our students and the instructional value we’re going to deliver this coming year.”
Read more about the school division's plans here.
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