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Although Prince William County schools remain on track to allow students to attend school in-person starting Nov. 10, there will be challenges -- including the “likelihood” of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, Superintendent Steven Walts said Wednesday.

Already, 17 students and staff are home quarantining as a result of COVID-19 cases among staff, Walts said.

“Should COVID remain at current or increased levels, there is the likelihood that positive cases may occur within schools, and that may require staff and students to quarantine,” Walts said during the school board’s Sept. 16 meeting. “In just the past week, we now have six students and 11 staff members in two-week quarantine.” 

It was the first time Walts publicly discussed COVID-19 cases at Prince William County schools since the new school year began Sept. 8. It was also the first time the superintendent shared some of the challenges the school division faces as administrators prepare for large numbers of students to return for in-school instruction.

Walts noted that maintaining the status quo – virtual instruction for most of the county’s 90,000 students – could be done “easily,” while switching to the planned “50% model” in November will pose significant logistical challenges.

Walts further asked the school board to let him know “as soon as possible” if they want to deviate from the 50% plan, which would allow students to return to school at least two days a week.

COVID-19 cases

So far, principals at five Prince William County schools -- Belmont Elementary, Chris Yung Elementary, Benton Middle, Woodbridge Senior High School and Patriot High School – have sent letters home to families informing them of positive COVID-19 cases among staff members. The letters, dated Sept. 7 to Sept. 16, said the staff members who tested positive and any “close contacts” at the schools are quarantining at home for two weeks.

The letters, which school division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta shared with The Prince William Times, said only that staff members had tested positive and were quarantining at home – not students. Walts, however, said six students are currently on quarantine.

Gulotta said the small number of students attending school in-person prevents schools from disclosing students’ status because of privacy concerns.

Of the cases mentioned in the letters, those at Belmont Elementary, Benton Middle and Woodbridge Senior High School did not involve classroom teachers, the principals said. 

Walts noted that the chance for positive COVID-19 cases when students return to school could be uneven across the county, “as infection rates vary greatly by ZIP Code.”

The school board voted back in July to begin the school year with mostly virtual instruction for the school division’s approximately 90,000 students. Only about 1,200 special education students and those learning English who have had significant breaks in their schooling are attending school in person during the first semester.

The school board also decided in July to transition to a 50% model after the first quarter, which ends Oct. 30. Under the 50% model, students may choose to return to school two days a week -- either on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Wednesdays and Fridays -- while receiving virtual instruction the remaining three days a week. Mondays would be virtual for all students.

Walts also mentioned for the first time Wednesday that the school board could choose a phased approach to in-person instruction that would begin only with students in kindergarten through third grade, instead of bringing all students back at the same time.

During his remarks, Walts said school board members and parents should know that returning to school via a 50% model would also entail:

Shifting the high school start time back to 7:30 a.m.:  Virtual instruction has meant a later start time for Prince William County high school students. The day officially begins at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. If the school board follows through with the 50% model, high schoolers will revert to the 7:30 a.m. start time, presumably to accommodate busing schedules.

3 feet social distancing, not 6 feet: Under the 50% model, the student body at each school would be split in half, allowing 50% of students in the building on any given day. The enrollment at most Prince William County schools allows for only 3 feet of distance between students and desks with 50% of students in the building.

A Nov. 10 start:  The second quarter begins Monday, Nov. 2. But the Nov. 3 presidential election – and the need to thoroughly clean school buildings operating as polling places – will push the start of in-person instruction to Tuesday, Nov. 10. 

Teachers would be allowed in the building on Thursday, Nov. 5, to begin readying their classrooms. Since students would not attend school on Mondays, the first day of school would be Tuesday, Nov. 10. The following day, Wednesday, Nov. 11, is a school holiday for Veterans Day, Walts noted.

Staffing impacts: Under the 50% model, teachers will be assigned to teach students both in-person and virtually, Walts said. 

“While we believe we can meet the staffing needs, there may be increased staffing impacts if staff must return in person, as staff may change plans based on childcare, health or other concerns,” Walts said.

“Low” community spread, despite dozens of new cases daily: Northern Virginia is currently considered to have “low” community spread of COVID-19, Walts said, citing the most recent data from the Prince William Health District. 

Still, Prince William County and Loudoun County have the highest percent-positivity rates on COVID-19 tests in Northern Virginia – at 8.3% on Wednesday -- and the county continues to report dozens of new COVID-19 cases each day. Also, five more COVID-19 deaths were reported in the Prince William County this week, bringing the local death toll since the start of the pandemic to 228.

New CDC guidance: Although he offered no details, Walts said the school division received new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday regarding schools. The school division will work with the Prince William Health District to make any changes necessitated by the new rules, Walts said.

“Despite these enormous challenges, our staff is already hard at work and I have every confidence [that] just as they rose to the challenge to meet the first day of the new year, they will do it again,” Walts said.

School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef (At Large) said during the meeting that parents should listen to Walts’ remarks about in-person instruction and check for updates on the school division website.

In an interview after the meeting, Lateef said the school board “remains optimistic” that the school division will transition to the 50% model in November but will continue to monitor any changes in local health metrics as well as Walts’ guidance over the next few weeks.

“If things on the ground change, Dr. Walts will advise the board of the best options,” Lateef said.

The school board has two meetings scheduled before the second quarter begins. The board will meet on Wednesday, Oct. 7, and Wednesday, Oct. 21.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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