The Prince William County School Board accepted the Superintendent’s plan for a slow phased-in return to in-person learning. Only pre-K and kindergarten classes will returning in-person via the hybrid model at the beginning of the second marking period.
The plan has elementary grades returning at various points within the second quarter, depending upon health metrics. Kindergarten and Pre-K will return on Nov. 10 with House B students returning on Nov. 13. First graders will return after Thanksgiving. Second and third grades will return on Jan. 12. Fourth and fifth graders will return on Jan. 26.
CTE student will return to in-person learning on Mondays beginning Nov. 16.* A second group will begin in-person Mondays on Dec. 7. Those special need students already learning in-person will continue to do so. All parents were given the option to have their children remain 100% virtual.
The hybrid model has students returning via “Houses” on alternating days and Mondays are at-home workdays. When not in-person, those students will continue to learn on Zoom and interact virtually with their classes. In some cases, virtual students will be assigned virtual teachers. In other cases, they would participate in in-person classes via Zoom.
All students will sit three feet apart and wear masks when within six feet of each other or indoors. Teachers must wear masks or face shields.
Statistically, younger people respond better to COVID-19. Staff members, due to their age, would be at greater risk than their students.
The second quarter Return-to-Learning plan was on the agenda for discussion. The July vote stated that the goal would be to return to hybrid 50% in-person learning in the second quarter at the superintendent’s discretion.
School Board Chairman Babur Lateef said he wanted students to return to school as early as September 8 and questioned the administrations slow rollout. However, he said he would not bring it to a vote as he knew there were not enough votes to overrule the superintendent’s recommendations.
Superintendent Dr. Steven Walts explained that health concerns took precedent. The CDC rates Prince William at a high-moderate risk for the number of new cases over a 14-day period, and moderate-risk for 6.5% positivity rate in the county. The school could be even more at risk as they only plan to socially distance by three, not six feet.
Walts notes that the risk is more than theoretical. PWCS has had 60 students and teachers in-person and virtual testing positive since Sept. 8. PWCS has had outbreaks in schools even with only 5% of students attending. The school division cannot bring back a full staff. HR will also have to have mitigations for 500 Tier-1 teachers with health conditions.
He said you cannot compare teaching to health care work or working at a grocery store although he appreciates those workers. He gave examples of a special education preschool teachers trying to juggle kids that would try to run away, climb on him, pull off their masks, and meanwhile the assistant teacher had to record the lesson.
BENEFITS OF ALL-VIRTUAL
The Superintendent expressed confidence in current all-virtual model. According to a recent survey, parents chose the all-virtual option for nearly 60% of students. This is a reversal from over the summer, when the majority of students indicated they would return in-person. While the goal remains to transition to “in-person learning,” Walts expressed that he would rather phase in slowly than have to reverse course. He also does not want to overburden teachers with unrealistic expectations.
‘[We’ve taken] the entire summer trying to get this to work virtually, and it’s starting to work, and I’m not saying it’s perfect in every situation,” Walts said, adding, “Teaching is a very difficult and challenging job in the best of scenarios.”
The schools are not ready to provide everyone with a laptop or tablet they would need to bring to class. “The computers won’t be in,” said Walts. “We have many on order.” Also, the new expanded online network won’t be ready.
Walts said the majority of high school and middle school principals would prefer to remain virtual in the second quarter. They are looking at the logistics in their schools and the preference of their staffs.
School start times and bus routes pose a hindrance for reopening. If all schools reopened at the same time, buses may need to make four trips a morning so students could social distance on buses.
Walts explained the benefit of his rollout. The youngest students can learn procedures, such as walking down the hall and using the bathroom in the new environment. The slow approach is also a safety precaution. Fewer students in the building means less of a possibility for spread.
A high school of 3,000 people can be an easy place for COVID-19 to spread. They would have to plan for passing times, eating in small groups, ways to conduct music and drama classes. Students would not be able to socialize in the normal way or share materials.
SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS' CONCERNS
Gainesville School Board member Jennifer Wall asked if teachers could teach from their classrooms so to “cross the threshold” into the environment and learn to utilize the virtual technology there, so to feel more comfortable.
Walts said the CDC warns against taking unnecessary risks, such as working in-person when teleworking is possible. There have already been incidents in schools that affected staff. And he worries about teacher backlash. Walts said that 12 teachers resigned in September right before the return to in-person learning went into effective for some special education students.
Based on that ratio, PWCS could lose 900 teachers if they disagreed with rollout or how they are being treated during the pandemic, said Walts. “Assume you’d lose 900 teachers. There aren’t 900 teachers to hire.”
Chairman Babur Lateef pushed back that he would prefer a quicker rollout, maybe all of elementary school, or one grade at each school level. He was not sure he was in agreement that those reasons precluded a more efficient return to school plan.
“I’m following the health guidance. I’m not here to debate you,” Walts told him, after reiterating several points.
Lateef said he is troubled that some students are not even attending class or watching the recordings. And he said he is seeing more “F’s” from his children, and said it is not working for many as they heard during Citizen's Time. Some students are not even attending classes.
“I will formally be asking for attendance data regularly,” Lateef said, despite Associate Superintendent Keith Imon, saying it would provide a challenge for teachers to provide that.
“There’s virtual teaching going on, is there any virtual learning?” Lateef asked.
But Woodbridge member Loree Williams said her second grade son has had a positive experience at his Title I school.
She wants parents to consider the workload is classwork. She asked that teachers be clear about assignments, and that parents can talk to teachers. Walts said they could mitigate that, so teachers are cognizant of the time assignments take.
Occoquan School Board member Lillie Jessie asked that teachers be even more involved so they do not feel they are “in the dark.”
PLAN FOR 2nd SEMESTER
Chairman Lateef and Potomac member Justin Wilk were disappointed that the plan did not include a next phase for middle and high school students. Walts said so much would depend upon COVID-19 community metrics and he did not want the community to expect a date that would be so tentative.
Lateef said they would put it on the agenda for discussion at their next meeting. They could plan dates they could strive to meet.
The direction the superintendent took was different from that which the community was expecting. Fifty people spoke during Citizen’s Time. More than half were parents asking that school being in-person. (Parents who wanted to keep their students home, knew they could choose that option.)
DISADVANTAGES OF ALL-VIRTUAL
Their reasons included it not working for some learners, high rates of depression and anxiety for some students, difficult on families who work, not the same as the in-school experience, too much screen time, too much workload, and not difficulty for students with special needs.
They said it was inequitable for working parents or students who did not respond to the delivery. It could be detrimental to students in unsafe home environments.
Some parents felt that teachers, rather than parents, were calling the shots. They reminded board member that they are their constituents, not the PWEA.
“You took away our ability to choose the best education option for our students,” said one mother. “We hired you, not the PWEA. Vote on our behalf, not the PWEA. Please know that for every person here tonight, there are 100 at home.” She said she “must get home to start my second job as a teacher.”
“Can the taxpayers see the difference between what was budgeted and what was spent?” asked one man, who said taxpayers should be getting a refund as students are not in school.
One woman said her family just moved back to the U.S. from Germany, where they were making it work during a pandemic.
TEACHERS CONCERNS ABOUT HYBRID MODEL
But a number of teachers spoke as well. They explained that from their understanding the hybrid model is not ideal for teachers or students.. They do not know how to teach online and in-person at the same time. The planning and delivery of a lesson is very different via those conditions, plus they would need to risk their health in a pandemic.
“The hybrid models sacrifices 80% of our students population,” said one male teacher, explaining that on a given day only 20% of students will be in class and the rest would be watching virtually.
“We physically can’t do it” said one female teacher. “How can I keep an eye on my Zoom kids, which group do I prioritize?..... We can’t do what you are asking of us.”
“Yes, this is very much school,” said one teacher, defending the virtual learning model. “We can’t afford at this juncture to dismantle the progress we made.” She said a return to in-person learning is not a return to pre-pandemic instruction and a mixture of virtual and in-person at once will not make for effective instruction.
“Mask wearing and disinfect desks….In-person and virtual at once,” one teacher said, listing the daunting number of responsibilities teachers would have to assume. He asked for a “realistic plan,” “that justifies their fears of mortality.”
It will not be equitable or safe. “Infection rate is tied to zip-code. We have no idea what the long-term health risk are. We are afraid. We are afraid for our students and afraid for our families. The right thing is the safe thing. This is on you….We need more time,” he said.
*Bristow Beat has corrected the date for which the first CTE group will return to in-person instruction.