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PWCS Administration Discusses Precautions for Limited In-Person Learning

| August 20, 2020 | 0 Comments | Education

Photo by Ashleigh Henegar

Prince William County Schools will offer in-person learning to nearly 1,900 of the county’s most “vulnerable” [learning] students out of its approximate 91,000 students. Division superintendent, Dr. Steven Walts gave an abbreviated presentation on the division plans at the Aug. 19 special school board meeting.

Those who qualify include special education students who spend at least 50% of their day in one-on-one care, EL [English Learners] who are dual special education students, and EL students who have had three years or more of interrupted instruction. The division has identified 1,894 students who qualify; parents may still elect a virtual learning option.

Parents of those students have yet to be informed, but the administration is trying to expedite the process.  “Parents are waiting with bated breath,” Coles member Lisa Zargapur said.

In-person students will return to school on Sept. 8 and follow the same 4-day schedule as all PWCS students. Students will be able to social distance from one another. Electives will be taught via video or Zoom to the classroom. Buses will be monitored by two adults.

PWCS Division Superintendent, Dr. Steven Walts said they have enough teachers to staff classrooms. Those with qualifying medical conditions are exempt. The division is taking extra precautions to keep all educators safe.

For instance, all teachers and students will be provided with masks. Teachers interacting very closely with severally disabled student will receive full-length gowns, gloves, N95 masks or clear full-face masks, and even Kevlar long-sleeved gloves.

“I have a very, very high level of confidence that we are going to be able to do this well,” Walts said.

Additionally, he said many teachers have told him they are “excited” to return to the classroom.

The division, not individual schools, will bear all PPE costs, drawing largely upon federal CARE funding. Schools can immediately request more PPE. Site-based management does not apply, during the pandemic, “when we are talking about something as important as health, safety and virtual or in-person learning,” Walts said.

And Walts said working with so few students in schools will help PWCS correct any mistakes before more students arrive. It is far less risky than a 50% or even 25% return model.

“Because we are starting with such a small number, it gives us an opportunity to learn what managing in this kind of pandemic is going to be like. We will probably makes some mistakes but we will learn in a much more controlled way with much fewer students in school,” he said.

However, according to school board members, and the Prince William Education Association, special education teachers still have grave concerns. Prince William Education Association wrote to the school division, asking that school begins virtually for all populations. In addition to disproportionate health risks to those teachers, hours of work will go into adjusting IEP plans.

Denise Huebner, PWCS Associate Superintendent of Special Education and Student Services expects teachers will finalize all IEP requirements by Sept. 8.

Occoquan member Lillie Jessie said there is an inequity that certain teachers cannot work from home during the pandemic. “Is there such a thing as hazard pay? If there is hazard pay, can these special education and EL teachers get that?” she asked.

PWCS HR Director Amy White said hazard pay is unlikely. No other school division they know of is offering it. Jessie and Potomac member Justin Wilk also inquired about a childcare stipend for those teachers.

The school division is working to help all PWCS educators find affordable childcare options. AlphaBest is offering a 20% discount and priority enrollment to children of PWCS educators, who enroll early this week. The cost is very competitive, and classes will be held in each magisterial district.

Jessie further asked the school division look into requiring those teachers to teach only half days, since their students will receive their elective or encore instructions virtually.

Coles member Lisa Zargarpur asked about families learning from home without access to WiFi.

Matt Guilfoyle, PWCS’s Associate Superintendent of Technology and Communications. said they will have WiFi in all high school and middle school parking lots. Additionally, families may qualify for their own hot-spot or utilize “Comcast Cares.” Some schools are setting up social distancing “internet cafes” for families.

Woodbridge member Loree Williams asked how the division would communicate in a crisis.

Walts said they would respond immediately – even if it means closing a school – and communicate immediately with families. “Things can change on a dime,” he said.

Jessie requested a hotline where teachers can report a lack of PPE or safety protocol without facing reprecussions from administrators. Walts and others agreed. He said teachers should not hesitate to call the Kelly Center if they see a safety hazard at their schools.

The administration said it would provide further information on virtual learning at its next school board meeting. However, Walts said that there has been “an army” of teachers creating curriculum modules on campus and an emphasis on adhering to state required standards of learning.

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