On Monday, Dec. 14, I woke up to an email box full from teachers, bus drivers and staff members not just asking but begging Superintendent Steven Walts and his pandemic team to relook at their plans for in-person learning in light of the staggering numbers of COVID-19 infections in our county. Prince William County is the “hot spot” for infections in Northern Virginia. Despite this, there has been no public statement to reconsider in-person learning as there has been in neighboring districts.
Nearby counties returned to virtual or are at least reconsidering plans based on set metrics. Dr. Walts has not stated his standard for in-person instruction. He has indicated a “I will look at it” policy. The students, parents and staff deserve more.
When Dr. Walts initially presented his return-to-school plan last summer, I stated that his Power Points were “powerless” because there was no “empathy for teachers” slide in the deck. Presentations in the board room continue to be lacking, each telling us how great things are. I am receiving emails and phone calls from teachers and bus drivers and others, many on the same evening, saying: “Don’t believe them. We are not all right!” Leaders are saying the opposite, that everything is wonderful, many of them from their “zoom rooms.”
Other counties are doing more with their staffs in mind. Some, like Stafford, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg are even giving bonuses to all of their employees, including part-time workers. We, on the other hand, may have teachers and staff in quarantine during the holiday break because of possible exposure. Something about this breaks my heart.
For those who think that I do not care about students or learning, I disagree and would point to my record. But I also recognize a lot of parents do not feel they are being heard as they fight for their students. Let me be clear, I am aware their students are in fact struggling. When the school board started this process, we said vulnerable students should return for in-person instruction. I have requested the superintendent and his staff develop a method, an appeal process for lack of better words, for parents who believe their children are not getting what they need in this virtual environment. I stand by that position. There should be a process implemented that allows parents to advocate for their children if they are in need.
Safety is the first priority, however. We had 157 staff members sick as of the last school board meeting. I do not have a count for this week, but was told today by the superintendent’s deputy they will respond in January 2021. Last week, I had to fight to get a N-95 mask for a tier 1 staff member deemed at high risk because the $100 cost was deemed too much.
Many of our staff members have shared their fears of retaliation with me. They lack the courage to speak publicly. I am called and emailed because some see me as the only advocate. I am not. There are others on the board, but they say we gave the superintendent the authority and must allow that to play out. I too, was supportive of that position, but the science has changed, and I want to see him changing with it as he has in the past.
I do not see him sharing a plan for responding other than mitigation strategies, which have not been monitored system-wide. Nor are the number of staff and students quarantined being monitored, according to the report given at the last board meeting.
I have asked the superintendent to “err on the side of caution.” I am not advocating closing school this week but would support that decision if the metrics tells us to do so.
Most importantly, we must revisit our decision to bring more students back for in-school learning January. We need to remain virtual until we garner all the facts based on anticipated surges in the virus immediately following the holidays.
Teachers who complained are often referred to as “fearful teachers.” They are in fact people who love this county. I have received emails from 17-year veteran teachers, all saying, “I Iove my job.” Many feel guilty about being afraid. We need to show them that we not only appreciate them but will take care of them. Many want to quit but cannot afford to. Let’s not put them in that situation. They should go home during the holiday break knowing we will not only will ensure learning for students but safety for them.
The writer is the Occoquan representative on the Prince William County School Board.