Walts offers in-person plan for Prince William students this fall, with virtual option

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

Superintendent Steve Walts says Prince William County Public Schools will offer students at all grade levels the option to return to school in-person five days a week or remain virtual, but it’s “not set in stone.”

“So obviously, this plan would be subject to change,” said Walts during Wednesday’s school board meeting. “There may be something in there that five or more members of the board don’t like, well, then we need to look at what that is.”

The plan was developed with assistance from a 78-person task force that included teachers, counselors, principals, division staff, and the Prince William Education Association. The School Board asked Walts on March 17 to prepare the plan for in-person learning this fall.

Walts said during the meeting he is optimistic about the majority of students returning in-person by the fall and cited a preliminary survey done by the school division which indicated that 85% of parents plan for their students to return to classes in person.

“My hunch is that if the vaccinations continue and the numbers in our region continue to get better … that the majority of people … are going to want to be in person,” said Walts.

COVID-19 mitigation strategies will be followed to the “fullest extent possible,” according to the plan. These include requiring 3 feet of distancing between students, with all students wearing masks, and 6 feet of distancing between students in cafeterias. Students may share seats on school buses but will be required to wear masks.

Schools will follow normal bell schedules, and virtual classes will follow the same bell schedule. A limited number of classes may not be offered virtually, such as technical education classes requiring hands-on work.

In addition, school-aged child care before and after the school day is planned as normal at the system’s 62 elementary schools and selected middle schools.

Parents can opt-in for virtual learning for their students for the fall semester between May 24 and May 28, according to the plan. But Walts noted that if parents choose for their children to do in-person or virtual it’s not final.

“if there’s five percent of the parents in June or July that want to change, I think we’re obligated to try to accommodate that,” said Walts.

Virtual students will be grouped together in virtual-only classes, and, to the greatest extent possible, teachers will not have to teach students online as well as those in person at the same time. Teachers who are asked to do so — or to teach during a quarantine — will receive additional compensation.

Another component of the plan is providing students access to counselors, and especially for those that choose to receive virtual instruction. Walts said that if students have not done well under virtual learning counselors will step-in to advocate those students do in-person learning instead.

“And if they insist on being virtual, we need to say, ‘look, we’re gonna set you up with a counselor to talk through why you don’t want to be on the screen,” said Walts. “But your teacher by and large, with a few exceptions, needs to be able to see you, to talk with you, to see that you’re engaged. It’s hard enough doing it online. But if the screen is black, then that’s really difficult.”

“But to the extent possible I think we need to try to get the majority of our kids in person …” said Walts.

When asked by school board member Loree Williams what will happen if schools are forced to close because of another variant or there is a rise in cases, Walts said he is optimistic that school districts will be more prepared than they were a year ago to return to 100% virtual learning if need be.

“Now we will have a computer for every next year,” said Walts. We will have connectivity to every household. If they can’t afford it, we’ll pay for it just like we are now using our federal funds.”

Walts noted that while he is optimistic about the reopening plan his task force has created it is subject to change based on state and federal health directives, and that the new superintendent, Dr. LaTanya McDade, may choose to make additional adjustments. McDade begins her work in Prince William on July 1, following Walts’ retirement.

“Dr. McDade, she may want to make some changes,” said Walts. “All of these things are under her control.”

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