Return to school plan approved by school board on Feb. 18

The Prince William County School Board stuck with this return-to-school plan, which they first approved on Jan. 12.

Over Superintendent Steven Walts’ objections and in opposition to new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Prince William County School Board is sticking with its plan to allow students in fourth through 12th grades to begin returning to schools for in-person instruction at the end of February.

After another marathon school board meeting that began at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, and stretched well past 1 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, a deeply divided school board voted 5-3 to retain the schedule they tentatively approved Jan. 12.

The plan allows willing fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth grade students to return to schools two days a week beginning on Feb. 25 and 26, while students in the seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades would be permitted to return to schools on March 2 and 3.

The decision came after the board rejected a new proposal from Superintendent Steven Walts to push the schedule back a few weeks to allow for teachers to be fully vaccinated and for their vaccinations to reach full efficacy. Walts sought to allow most teachers and staff to wait until several days after receiving their second shot to return to school buildings.

Walts’ schedule proposed returning students in fourth and fifth grades on March 9 and 10, while students in grades sixth and ninth would have returned on March 23 and 24. Older students – those in seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades – would have returned after spring break on April 6 and 7.

Walts introduced his revised schedule after an hours-long presentation from school division teachers, counselors and principals about what schools are already doing to support students both academically and emotionally while learning virtually.

During the presentation, principals told school board members their schools would be ready to welcome back students on the date the school board chose. But all also expressed concerns about several issues, including the mixing of older students in hallways and cafeterias, the difficulty of keeping teenagers 6 feet apart and, in some schools, the low number of students returning to school. Some principals spoke of teachers having to come into school buildings to teach only one or two students in person while the rest remained home, learning virtually.

Walts also said he does not believe the school board’s earlier dates are either “feasible or safe.”

Walts called his own plan “feasible and safer.” He said it would not only wait until all teachers and staff are vaccinated but offered extra time for community transmission rates of COVID-19 to decline.

Prince William County's COVID-19 metrics, while declining recently, are still high enough to place the local health district in the "highest risk" range in measures such as cases of COVID-19 per capita and the percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests.

Both measures figure prominently in new CDC guidance released last week that recommends that communities with the highest level of community spread allow only the youngest and most vulnerable students to attend school in-person on a hybrid schedule. Middle and high schools are recommended to remain virtual.

In all cases in communities with the highest level of spread, 6 feet of social distancing is "required," the CDC guidance says. Walts and other school division officials have said 6 feet of social distancing cannot be guaranteed in either middle or high school hallways or on school buses at all grade levels.

Walts also noted his plan would stretch out the grades’ return to schools, allowing administrators to better implement and adjust mitigation strategies as thousands more students return to schools.

But Walts’ plan died in a 4-4 tie, with school board members Adele Jackson (Brentsville), Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), Loree Williams (Woodbridge) and Diane Raulston (Neabsco) voting in favor of the plan and school board Chair Dr. Babur Lateef (at large) voting against it, along with Lisa Zargarpur (Coles), Jen Wall (Gainesville) and Justin Wilk (Potomac).

The board also voted down a kind of compromise plan suggested by Wilk that would have returned fourth and fifth graders to schools on Feb. 25 and 26 while pushing back sixth and ninth grades to March 2 and 3 and the rest of the grades to March 9 and 10.

But only Raulston joined Wilk in voting for that plan, while all other school board members voted against it. 

Finally, Lateef called for a vote on the Jan. 12 plan, which won his support as well as that of Raulston, Wall, Wilk and Zargarpur. Jackson, Jessie and Williams voted against it.

After the vote, Walts insisted the school board clarify his "authority" in making changes to the school schedule based on health and safety concerns.

Mary McGowan, the school board attorney, said that in her opinion, Walts could take any of several steps to react to spikes in cases or outbreaks, including ordering individual grades or entire schools to revert to virtual instruction. But Walts could not alter the return-to-school schedule the school board reaffirmed early Thursday morning, McGowan said.

 

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(8) comments

PWCS teacher

Dr. Lateef and his cronies have effectively turned the superintendent into a figurehead. He has the audacity to believe his ideas override the education and experience of Dr. Walts. His disrespect toward Dr. Walts, as well as the simpering idiocy of Ms. Walls, the wishy-washy ways of Mr. Wilk and the disinterested, disengaged Mrs. Raulston are beyond the pale. Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Jessie and Ms. Williams, your efforts in keeping the health and safety of PWCS staff and students in the forefront does not go unnoticed. Mrs. Zargarpur, I am disappointed in you. As a fellow teacher, I was surprised that you seem so far removed. Dr. Lateef, you broke every rule as the chairman of the board and your intent was clear and quite despicable. And Dr. Walts, I am sorry that you have taken so much time and energy trying to propose workable, well-thought out plans, only to have Lateef lead the charge to fill the building, regardless of the high numbers or the CDC guidelines. I wish you well in your retirement and can’t wait to see how many prospective superintendents quickly withdraw their applications to lead. We don’t need a superintendent anyway - we have Lateef.

cultured2014

thanks lateef for sticking up for parents and students who want to go back to school. Jessie was horrible during that meeting, Lateef is the voice of reason. no reason to delay, send the kids back and let's get this show on the road. teachers are getting vaxxed, so what's the issue? hint: there is none. let's get back to work

Anon

Yes. Teachers are getting vaccinated. A lot of them are getting vaccinated on March 1. Hundreds of teachers. Did you know that the Pfizer vaccine has really rough side effects with the second dose? Including fevers and Covid symptoms? Legally, if teachers have these symptoms, they cannot go into the buildings. Drivers cannot drive the students. Because it could be Covid. With all of these people needing to take sick leave, they will need substitutes. The thing is, there are no substitutes. No one wants to sub. That’s why Walts suggested a delay. Because so many staff members are anticipating needing subs that week. There is a huge logistical mess on the horizon that Walts had the foresight to prepare for. When it happens, don’t you dare complain. Maybe your should sign up to sub until we can get teachers fully vaccinated.

Anon

Thank you Lateef for spitting in the face of every employee in Prince William County Schools by bullying the Board members into complying. You’ve proven that your ego matters more than the safety of our children, their teachers, and their families. You should be ashamed. I hope that you can see the forthcoming teacher shortage over your puffed chest.

Thank you to Dr. Walts, for attempting to be a voice of reason among a group of playground bullies who plug their ears when given actual data and a few adults (Ms. Jessie, Ms. Williams, and Ms. Jackson) who are powerless to stop them.

VirginianWhoCares

Wow, Anon. I was about to post, but looks like you got everything covered.

I can't imagine any new superintendent wanting to work with this Board. Walts will be missed. Williams, Jessie and Jackson, keep fighting the good fight!

AJ

Wow, I strongly disagree. Dr. Walts reasoning for the delay was not strong at all. I know the county is not putting in effort to hire substitutes and volunteers. Ms. Wall's and Mr. Wilk's reasoning was absolutely spot on.

Anon

You think that wanting to follow CDC guidelines is not strong reasoning? He asked for a month extension on secondary. Two weeks for 4/5. Just to try to combat the anticipated staffing shortages related to vaccines and the high-risk rates.

What is strong reasoning to you? The mental health of students? That’s not going to get any better. They still have to use Zoom to talk to their classmates. They have to eat alone. They have to sit at desks staring at a screen. There will be no human contact. No hugs. No smiles. No high fives. Forget the arts. In encore classes, there will be no music, singing, dancing, acting, or art. Just sitting at a desk, all alone, for hours each day. Or do you think the educators are lazy, with their 60-70 hour work weeks and valid concerns about safety?

If you think it’s a good plan, sign up to sub. PWCS needs them. Desperately.

Anon

Maybe you should volunteer to sub then. Most people just don’t want to. Not during a regular year, and definitely not during a pandemic.

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