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Prince William County students in the fourth through 12th grades would have to wait until late April to attend school in person under the revised timeline Superintendent Steven Walts proposed early Thursday. 

In response to rising local COVID-19 infections and with hope that teachers might be vaccinated by early spring, Walts presented a new timeline for returning students to in-person instruction during a marathon school board meeting that stretched to nearly 3 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7.

Under his proposal, students in the second and third grades would return to schools as scheduled on Jan. 12 and 13.

But those in fourth grade through high school would wait until the fourth quarter begins after spring break, with grades four, five, six and nine returning on April 20 and the remaining high school grades returning on April 27. Those students were originally scheduled to return to schools in late January and early February.

Whether Prince William County School Board will accept those changes, however, remains an open question.

After discussing pandemic issues for about five hours Wednesday night, the school board voted at about 2:20 a.m. to revisit the return-to-school timeline during a special meeting set for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Walts made his new recommendation at about midnight during the Jan. 6, school board meeting after a lengthy discussion about rising levels of COVID-19 in the community and the school division’s process for accommodating teachers who have documented health conditions that place them at a greater risk for severe complications of COVID-19.

The school division has at least 692 such “Tier 1” teachers, many of whom would have to return to school buildings to teach if thousands more students returned for in-person classes. 

Prince William County’s high local infection rate of COVID-19, and the risks the virus poses to Tier 1 teachers, have been major points of community debate regarding when students should return for in-person instruction.

Prince William County was the only school division in Northern Virginia to begin the school year Sept. 8 with in-school instruction for some vulnerable students. It was also the only school division in the Washington region that did not revert to all-virtual instruction right before or after winter break, due to rising COVID-19 cases.

During Wednesday’s discussion, school division officials revealed that 148 students and 118 staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus between Dec. 15 and Jan. 5 alone. That’s on top of the more than 400 cases logged prior to Dec. 15. 

Among students, the cases involved 129 students who are attending school virtually; 15 who are attending school on a “hybrid” schedule, or two days a week; and four among those attending school four days a week. 

Among staff, the cases involve 81 staff members working inside the buildings and 37 working virtually.

A total of 270 students and more than 100 staff members were also quarantining because of cases or close contacts to positive cases during that time, according to a presentation by Denise Huebner, associate superintendent for special education and student services.

The numbers come amid spiking cases of COVID-19 throughout the Prince William Health District that Walts at one point during the meeting characterized as “skyrocketing community transmission.” 

As of Jan. 6, Prince William County’s percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests was 21%, while its measures on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tool designed to assess the risk of opening schools were higher than at any point during the pandemic. 

Walts said his new timeline was based on state guidance that suggests school divisions with moderate to high community spread limit in-person instruction to special education students, English learners, and students in pre-K through third grades.

Walts said he believes the lower grades are better able to follow mitigation strategies because students can be kept in single groups, or cohorts, which allow students and teachers to mostly limit their contacts and thus the spread of the virus.

“Cohorting” is not possible in middle and high schools, however, as students change classes throughout the day, Walts noted. Also, the enrollments at county middle and high schools are larger, making social distancing more difficult.

Those differences “will increase the risk in areas such as hallways and make determining close contacts or contact tracing very difficult” in middle and high schools, Walts said.

“Lower community spread brought by vaccinations [and] moving beyond winter and flu season will hopefully help mitigate this risk and allow us to move to secondary in-person [instruction] in April,” he added.

Walts added that he did “not come to this decision lightly.”

“As I have stated, my own child is a senior this year, and I feel the weight of this decision both as a professional and as a parent,” he said. “We all believe that in-person learning is critical for many students, and we will do everything in our control to bring students into buildings as soon as possible.”

Walts said delaying the older students' return to April 20 and 27 would allow for a two-week pause after spring break, scheduled for March 29 to April 2, to monitor for another possible spike in cases related to trips and gatherings.

At one point in the meeting, Walts became emotional and said he felt bad about all the things students were missing because schools have mostly been closed due to the pandemic.

Some members of the school board – most notably Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef -- pushed back against Walts’ new timeline, however, saying it was too protracted and likely would be criticized by parents anxious to get their children back in school. 

Some school board members predicted students and parents would wonder whether it would be worth bringing back students back at all if they had to wait until almost May to do so.

Lateef (At Large) called the changes “radical” and pressed Walts on whether fourth- and fifth-graders could be brought back to school buildings earlier or whether he would consider returning more students in early March, depending on pandemic metrics. 

Lateef said he hoped school staff members might be able to receive shots by late February, given that Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday they would be prioritized among essential workers.

Walts responded by saying the school board was sending “mixed messages" by first giving him the authority to make changes to the return-to-school plan if he deemed it necessary and then changing their minds.

He said the school board could vote to return fourth- and fifth-graders earlier – depending on pandemic metrics – or to bring middle and high school students back directly after spring break if they chose to do so.

Lateef sought a motion for such a vote, but the effort initially failed to receive the six votes needed to take action, with school board members Diane Raulston (Neabsco), Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) and Loree Williams (Woodbridge) voting against it.

A few minutes later, the board took another vote to move the discussion to a Jan. 12 special meeting, which was approved unanimously.

The board further decided to limit public comment time to an hour and take all other public comment via email, which would be allowed because it’s a special meeting, said school board attorney Mary McGowan.

It’s not clear how or if the school board will vote to change Walts’ plan, as no particular ideas were discussed during the meeting except perhaps bringing fourth-, fifth- and possibly sixth-graders into school buildings before spring break and all other students immediately after.

But Walts cautioned board members that bringing middle and high school students back into schools would require major scheduling changes, mostly because of the need to make multiple bus runs to accommodate social distancing and make up for a lack of bus drivers. Under the expected changes, high schools would revert to their regular 7:30 a.m. starting time, while middle schools would begin around 8:45 a.m. and elementary schools about an hour later. The timeline would likely put the youngest students in school until late in the afternoon.

Bringing students back into schools could also require teacher changes related to accommodations for Tier 1 teachers. But Walts said he hoped vaccinations would make those changes less necessary if the school board agrees to wait until April.

Walts cautioned that such changes would be “disruptive” and “chaotic” if made during the middle of a quarter.

Under Walts’ plan, the change would come after the beginning of the fourth quarter, which starts April 6.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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