Prince William County families who would like their children to attend school in person, full-time -- as well as those who would rather their children stay all virtual -- will likely have both options next school year, the school board tentatively announced Wednesday.
During their March 17 meeting, the school board asked Superintendent Steven Walts to return in May with a plan that would allow students to return to schools five days a week a soon as next August for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
The board also asked that Walts devise plan to allow students to remain all virtual. Some also asked that he try to avoid the need for teachers to instruct both in-person and virtual students “concurrently,” which some said isn’t working.
Walts, who is retiring June 30, said his staff is already working on a plan for next school year that includes both full-time, in-person instruction as well as an all-virtual option. But Walts also said he would like to retain the option for students to do a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, especially at the high school level, if they prefer it.
Walts noted that some students – because of jobs or other responsibilities – might want to have the option of taking some classes virtually. He also noted that some concurrent instruction might be necessary in some high school classes with limited instructors.
“We have some things that I think will be very attractive to people, in addition to just making one choice or the other” regarding all-virtual or in-person instruction, Walts said. “So if the resolution includes five days of virtual, … five days of in-person … and some other options, I'm good to go.”
In response, the school board voted unanimously after the discussion on a resolution asking Walts to bring forth a plan by May 5. But they kept the wording flexible so as not to exclude the option of mixing in-person and virtual instruction.
School Board members Jenn Wall (Gainesville) and Loree Williams (Woodbridge), who jointly introduced the resolution, said their goal was to let parents know the school board is working on an option to allow students to return to school full-time in the fall if the pandemic restrictions allow it.
Williams also stressed that she wants students to have the option of attending school all virtually as many have preferred it due to health reasons, family concerns or because they have found they work better from home.
Williams and Wall have been on opposite sides of the return-to-school debate over the past year. Wall has been a strong advocate for returning students for in-person instruction as soon as possible, while Williams has been more cautious, preferring that students and teachers remain learning virtually while COVID-19 was still prevalent in the county.
The school division “needs to ensure that we provide a pathway for education that is clear, both for in-person students and for students who do want to stay home and be 100% virtual in the fall,” Williams said.
“Vaccines are not a cure, and students are not yet eligible for vaccines. On the whole, they are a safeguard and another layer of mitigation,” she added. “And with this virus, ongoing and mutating, there's still a lot of concern from a lot of families about how we do proceed?”
Williams also noted that the school division is overcrowded and would benefit if some students continue to opt for virtual instruction.
“Providing 100% virtual option really is a part of that consideration. If every student is not sitting in a seat in a building, it reduces our overcrowding,” she said.
Wall said returning students to school full-time in-person instruction is the right thing to do for students' social, emotional and academic well-being.
School Board Chairman Babur Lateef (at large) said the intent of the resolution is to let parents know the school division is planning to offer five-day-a-week, in-person instruction while not putting too many limits on Walts’ plans.
“We want to provide some reassurance to the public for those who are anxious about what are we going to do in the fall, that we do have a direction in this resolution,” Lateef said. “Really, it would just direct, really just ask the superintendent, to come up with his plan.”
School Board member Justin Wilk (Potomac) said he believes the days of only brick-and-mortar schools are “over” but that the school division must be deliberate in its planning of schedules for next school year.
“What courses are going to be offered pretty much only in-person? Will kids have the option of learning from home or will kids have to come in? What courses will kids have virtual? Will the kids have to commit to a semester of virtual so that the schedule doesn't change, at least? Or will it be a full year?” Wilk asked. “These are things we have to sort out. I'm not giving my position, I'm just saying.”
Until just a few weeks ago, only the school division’s youngest and most vulnerable students were attending local schools for in-person instruction. In recent weeks, the school division has allowed all grade levels to attend school mostly on a hybrid, two-day-a-week schedule.
So far, however, only about 30% to 40% of high school students have opted to return to school, something School Board member Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) questioned during the meeting. She said she visited one high school last week and saw only two or three students in each class.
“We would need to go back and figure out why some of these kids did not come back,” Jessie said.
Jessie also noted that the school division will soon have a new superintendent and stressed that the new school division leader must be allowed to implement the plan as he sees fit.
In the school board's pandemic update, they learned that the local COVID-19 metrics are stabilizing and improving but that the virus continues to impact Prince William County schools.
Between March 1-14, 229 students and 78 staff members have had to quarantine, mostly because they were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.
Also since March 1, the school division has reported 143 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff working both in person and virtually.
While still significant, the number is down from 305 cases in February and 899 cases in January, according to the school division’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com