The Prince William County School Board gave its blessing to Superintendent Steve Walts’ new phased approach to getting students back to the classroom, starting with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in November. First, second and third grades would return in December and January.
During a more than six-hour meeting with emotional pleas from parents, teachers and students on both sides of the debate, the school board peppered Walts with questions, but did not vote, saying instead they ultimately support the plan.
The superintendent’s approach focuses on bringing the county’s youngest students back to classrooms up to third grade for two days per week over several months. First-grade students would return on Dec. 1, followed by second and third grade together on Jan. 13.
Additional grade levels would follow, with fourth and fifth grade returning Jan. 26, under a similar phased-in approach as long as Centers for Disease Control metrics allow. Parents and guardians can choose to continue virtual-only learning.
Walts cited a variety of reasons for the trickling return to school but based much of his recommendation on the school district’s moderate to high risk of COVID-19 spread, based on CDC and Virginia Department of Health reports.
He also said the new plan would allow for ironing out logistics, technology and making sure all students have portable digital devices, which are currently on order.
School board members expressed surprise at Walts’ recommendation, saying they had just received his latest proposal as they arrived for the meeting. The board voted in July for school staff to work toward a “50/50” hybrid model, which would return students in all grades to classrooms two days each week.
Board members questioned why the phase-in needed to be so slow and wondered why middle and high school students couldn’t return since those schools are empty.
Walts said there are many considerations — from preparing technology to high school start times to the challenge of having at least 500 county teachers with health conditions requiring them to work remotely.
There was drama before the school board meeting ahead of Walts revealing his latest plan.
County teachers and the Prince William Education Association formed a 100-vehicle caravan, at least two cars topped with tiny coffins, to protest from Colgan High School to Wednesday night’s Prince William County School Board meeting over the district’s plan to return students to classrooms.
In the parking lot, and inside the Edward Kelly Leadership Center, it was a socially-distanced sea of green and red – teachers wearing red and those in favor of returning to in-person learning in green.
Fifty speakers addressed the board, offering sometimes emotional pleas for returning to class, or remaining virtual. Those who spoke were split about half and half – with mainly teachers asking for more time in virtual learning and parents demanding children get back in school.