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.