The Prince William County School Board voted early Thursday morning to stick to its original plan for all students who have selected hybrid learning to return to classes beginning next week.
In doing so, the board rejected a proposal from Superintendent Steve Walts to bring some of the outstanding students back starting March 9 and the remainder later in the month.
Under the plan adopted at last night’s meeting, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and ninth-graders will return to class two days a week starting Thursday, Feb. 25, and Friday, Feb. 26. All remaining grades will return beginning Tuesday, March 2, and Wednesday, March 3.
The plan was designed to give sixth- and ninth-graders a few days in their new middle and high schools, respectively, before older students return. All students still have the option to choose virtual-only learning. Division staff said that so far, only about 30% of students had chosen to opt into the hybrid model, with the rest planning to remain fully virtual. Pre-kindergarten through third-grade students are already back in school two days per week on the hybrid model.
Bell schedules also will change for all students starting Tuesday, Feb. 23. High schools will begin around 7:30 a.m., middle schools around 8:15 a.m., and elementary schools around 9 a.m. That is the reverse of the current schedule, in which elementary schools begin first and high schools begin last.
The plan was initially adopted in January but the board deferred final approval until Wednesday night in order to ensure that COVID-19 cases didn’t continue to surge and that teachers could be vaccinated.
But Walts maintained his objection to the return plan again Wednesday night, presenting a schedule that would have delayed the return for grades four and up until all teachers could receive their second vaccine doses. He and others cited concerns about a lack of substitute teachers division-wide, something that was echoed by a number of principals who were invited to share their thoughts on the respective return plans.
Chair Babur Lateef, who’s long supported a more aggressive plan for returning students to classrooms, said he didn’t want to wait one more day, arguing that the vaccines in use were largely effective after the first dose and that health officials at the state and federal level hadn’t predicated their return guidance on a full vaccine regimen.
According to school officials, every schools staff member has been offered an opportunity to receive a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with the first round of booster shots planned for administration Feb. 20 and 21 for older or more vulnerable staff members. As for students currently learning in school buildings, there were 91 student cases being treated as positive between Feb. 1 and Feb. 14, or 0.75% of the total in-person student population.
The county still remains in the Virginia Department of Health’s highest risk tier for school reopening core indicators. Namely, the 14-day test positivity rate is 10.8% and the county is averaging 535 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days.
But those and other numbers are declining rapidly, putting the county in the low risk tier of VDH’s secondary indicators.
“These are great vaccines; we’ve done an incredible job of getting people their first dose… I want to reassure staff.” Lateef said. “The understanding must be clear. President Biden, Governor Northam, the CDC, the VDH has not required vaccines to return.”
After a slight adjustment to the schedule proposed by Potomac District Supervisor Justin Wilk was voted down 6-2, Woodbridge District School Board member Loree Williams brought Walts’ plan, which was first announced at the meeting, up for a vote. The board deadlocked 4-4 on it, with her, Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), Diane Raulston (Neabsco) and Adele Jackson (Brentsville) in support. When Lateef then brought the board’s January proposal back for another vote, Raulston joined the four others with a yes vote to move forward with bringing students back next week.
Standard mitigation tactics are going to be implemented and enforced; namely proper mask-wearing, maintaining physical distance and new directional signage.
Other more novel practices will also be used. Associate Superintendent for Support Services Albert Ciarochi said facilities staff had spent time in the summer and fall examining every HVAC system in the division to ensure they were set up to move as much air through school buildings as possible. In classrooms with windows, teachers will be instructed to keep them open when possible to maintain recommended air flow, which is shown to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Some students are and will eat lunch in school gymnasiums and auditoriums, others inside classrooms. One principal, Michael Bishop of Patriot High in Nokesville, said each individual lunch desk would have a number and a QR code to track which students sat at which tables when eating, information that could be used in the event of a positive case.
Because of the staggered in-person days, efforts to limit the number of people each student and teacher interacts with on a given day, and the fact that not all students will be participating in the hybrid model, class sizes will be significantly smaller for schools across the division. But principals voiced concern Wednesday night over keeping students from interacting too closely in between classes, as well as the possibility for staff shortages.
Woodbridge High School Principal Heather Abney told the board that was her main concern, saying that so far the school’s been able to avoid having to quarantine significant numbers of staff because the special education and English-language learners currently receiving in-person instruction have been doing so in pods with limited interaction outside those pods.
“Those students are in the same classroom all day, that’s been effective and we’ve been able to have those students stay without quarantine,” Abney said. “My number one concern is lack of substitutes … I have one substitute that is assigned to Woodbridge each day, I have two substitutes total. … As of right now we have 25% of our students [planning] to return in person, 350 students moving about the building a minimum of seven times a day. As a principal, I’m very concerned when I have a COVID case, how I’m going to track that.”
After the final vote to adopt the return plan was successful, Walts asked the board what discretionary authority he would have to possibly delay the start date unilaterally, saying that a number of teachers and parents had told him that they believed he had the authority to implement whichever plan he best saw fit.
After some back and forth, the board consulted with its counsel, who said that he could close schools because of specific outbreaks or staff shortages, but that the return plan was the board’s decision.
Jessie said the board should heed the superintendent’s expertise as an education professional.
“The board is the board, the superintendent is the superintendent,” she said. “We’re talking to everybody but the teachers. The teachers have asked for a delay. … The teachers have been put at risk and if we don’t have to put them at risk, we shouldn’t put them at risk.”