The Prince William County School Board voted 5-3 to postpone start dates for students in grades 4-12 by at least one month with the earliest start date moved to Feb. 26, 2021.
The School Board will reconvene on Feb. 17 to receive an update on the state of COVID-19 in the community. At that time, they can also consider how many teachers have been vaccinated and how they can proceed.
The plan overrides the Superintendent's plan to return two-four weeks after spring break, but does not negate the possibility of adopting that plan at their February meeting.
That the Prince William County School Board modify the Superintendent’s phased in Return to Learning Plan, as presented by the Superintendent and approved by the School Board on October 21, 2020, to delay for an additional month the proposed return dates for all students above the second and third grade level in order to continue to monitor applicable health metrics and vaccine distribution; that the Board receives information regarding the feasibility of these new dates at its February 17, 2021 School Board meeting; and further, that in the interim, the Superintendent shall retain the authority to take such measures as he considers necessary to protect the health of students and staff, including measures needed to respond to the impact of the pandemic on individual schools.
Students would still have the option to remain all-virtual. General population students would attend school two days a week, in a hybrid classroom. Their teachers would teach groups once referred to, during the meeting, as "Roomies" and "Zoomies."
According to Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, who proposed the motion, the goal is to get students back in school in March depending on health metrics. “The vaccine changes everything,” he said.
Teachers who are 1b essential workers such as teachers have already begun receiving the vaccine in Fairfax County. The Prince William Health Department is a little behind its neighbors, but believes school employees can begin receiving vaccines on Jan. 28.
Lateef said his plan is not predicated on the vaccines. He believes schools can operate safely even without staff being vaccinated. “Schools have not been a source of spread," he told the board.
The board’s plan aims to expedite the return to school date from the April 20 and 28. Superintendent Walts proposed his plan Thursday at 2 a.m. last week. Walts said he conferenced with board members before the meeting although some appeared to react as though they were first hearing about it.
Walts acknowledged it is extremely challenging to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools in which students are changing classes every period. He also expects that cases could surge again after spring break. Logistically, it would be extremely difficult to rework schedules in the middle of a marking period.
But many school board members wanted students to return earlier. Although the board previously gave him authority to plan the calendar, they decided to instead vote on their own plan.
Tuesday, Lateef said he realized the criticism would be that he is pushing off a decision, but he can live with that.
Gainesville School Board member Jennifer Wall said the plan was “hopeful,” because the vaccine means the situation could greatly improve, and they could then reevaluate at the February meeting.
Potomac School Board member Justin Wilk said it was keeping with his goal of giving families the choice to return to school. He said he is against Tier 1 at risk employees returning to the buildings, but not precluding students from learning in school.
However, the superintendent advised against the adoption of the plan.
“I just want to let you know- I’m not supportive of the plan. We will not have people vaccinated. hundreds and hundreds of kids pouring in with what we know of the air-born issue," said Walts. “You’ve chastised me over and over publicly because you only had the information before the board meeting...You can’t even do an appropriate vetting as to whether or not it is workable or not. You need 30 days just to do schedules.”
Walts said even those who get vaccinated on Jan. 28, would not be fully immunized until the middle of March. The marking period is wrapping up, and spring break starts on March 27.
Additionally, telling families a date then pushing it back again, just creates unnecessary anxiety for the community.
Meanwhile, more than 60% of families have chosen all-virtual for their students, 34K verses 64K. That is a 11% increase from the second marking period. And the school division has been provided with funding that will go towards paying for students to receive tutoring.
Woodbridge school board member Loree Williams was very critical of the plan and other board member's desire to be "hopeful," rather than realistic about the situation. “I think it is very misleading to run a division on 'hope' when we are asking - and we’ve been consistently asked by our constituents - to run it on data.”
She saying they were “talking out of both sides of their mouth.” They want to provide the superintendent the authority but also take it for themselves.
Williams made a substitute motion that included no return dates, only that they would discuss it at the Feb. 17 meeting. She thought this would be agreeable to everyone.
Brentsville school board member Adele Jackson said she was amenable to William’s plan. She said she would make a data-based decision on when it was safe to return students to school.
Lillie Jessie, the Occoquan school board member, also agreed to it. Jessie said she did not even know why they had allowed the 2nd and 3rd graders to return given Prince William County was in the midst of a surge. She brought up the issue last week, but the plan was never called for a vote.
She reminded everyone to take in the fact that PWCS lost its first employee to COVID-19, Dinora Mejia, who worked as a custodian at Potomac View Elementary School in Woodbridge.
“It’s just so emotional for me,” said Jessie. “And today when I heard about the custodian, I just lost it. I don’t think we should be sending in 2nd and 3rd graders at this time. We lost a staff member. I know we say, ‘it wasn’t because she was at our schools, but she was at our schools at some point.’”
Williams substitute motion failed. Then the board then voted on Lateef’s motion. Lateef's motion passed 5-3. Lateef, Wall, Wilk, Diane Raulston (Neabsco) and Lisa Zargurpur (Coles) voted in favor of it. Williams, Jessie and Jackson voted against.
Before the meeting, the board held an abbreviated citizen's time. The majority of speakers asked that PWCS do not rush to have students and teachers return to school but heed health metrics and look towards getting staff immunized against the virus.
Bristow Beat will provide more information about the meeting in subsequent articles.