Prince William County Schools Makes No Changes to Return to Building Plan

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Photo by Ashleigh Henegar

Prince William County Schools does not plan to diverge from its Return to School Building hybrid plan at this juncture, despite surging number of COVID-19 cases and a 10.8% positivity rate. PWCS presented updated information to school board at its Dec. 2 school board meeting. No vote was taken.

COVID-19 positive case multiple by 3.5 among PWCS community members from September to November and they are expected to increase more over the holidays. The superintendent believes the divisions mitigation efforts are currently sufficient.

“At this time, I am not recommending any changes to our operations, which is due in large part to the limited numbers of students we have in the building currently coupled with our extensive mitigation efforts,” said Walts. “This includes winter sports at the high school level which will continue as planned with additional mitigation requirements.”

With a current status of “Moderate-High Risk,” the Virginia Department of Health recommends younger and at-risk students be prioritized for in-person learning with mitigations. "All other students should be served remotely.”

PWCS is adhering to those guidelines. It just brought back some of its first-grade students. Pre-K, kindergarten students electing in-person learning have been attending two days a week since Nov. 10. Willing special education and ESOL students have returned 4-days a week.

Walts said the school division is looking at multiple factors and do not plan to set a magic number even though Fairfax Public Schools number is a 8% positivity rate. He said the Prince William County Health District has done an excellent job making free COVID-19 testing available, which may affect county rates.

Potomac school board member Justin Wilk said that across the Commonwealth there is no correlation between high rates of COVID-19 infections and schools that are closing to in-person learning. The only correlation is how citizens vote and the strength of their teacher associations.

But neither will PWCS accelerate its plan to reopen schools to students. Hurdles include broadband access, computer devices for all students, and having sufficient busing, to name a few.

The number of surging COVID-19 cases within the PWCS community has multiplied since September. The division saw 50 cases in September, 84 in October and 177 in November. Those stats include all-virtual learners and teachers as well as in-person students and staff.

Walts said they plan to “monitor the situation closely,” and should more indicators reach their highest levels, plans to return students to school  might be delayed, or other mitigation strategies might be implemented.

The superintendent said it is not accurate that the school division will only close by governor mandate. “What was not shared [in the media story] is the fact that I mentioned that in absence of a mandate from the governor, this is a school-division-based decision that relies on several local factors.”

During Citizen’s Time, many parents and students advocated that their students return to in-person learning for various education and social reasons. It was teachers who voiced their concerns over their health, especially when cases are surging in the community. Some said schools are not equipped with enough PPE.

School principals said they have been very responsive to school needs and working closely with administrators at the Kelly Leadership Building.

Occoquan School Board member Lillie Jessie talked about staff concerns, asking again about getting them proper PPE upon request (which administrators say is currently being done.) She said she has never seen so many teachers talk during Citizen’s Time or email their board members as she has since the pandemic. They are worried about their health in the “life or death” situation. She asked that administrators show compassion and take their concerns seriously. She asks them to create an environment where people can talk frankly about their concerns and know they are being heard.

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