Prince William School Board Will Decide Whether to Approve Return to Building Plan

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Photo by Ashleigh Henegar
The Prince William School Board must decide whether it will adhere to its previously proposed return to building dates for 4th-12th grade students at tonight's meeting. The decision comes during a time of seemingly contradictory guidelines coming from the state and federal government. As of today, return to in-school dates are set for Feb. 25 and 26 for 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th grades, and March 2 and 3 for 7th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades. Specific bell and bus schedules are subject to change. Prince William County’s community transmission places its schools squarely within the “highest risk” category according to the Virginia Health Department. Within this category the VDH recommends only willing PreK-3rd grade learners, special education and English Language Learners return to in-school learning. PWCS is currently adhering to those recommendations. However, over the past few weeks, the Biden Administration has led a nation-wide push to reopen schools. Governor Ralph Northam has also advised all Virginia schools to open to some form of hybrid learning options. Biden acknowledged the pandemic’s “significant impact on the children and parents as well," according to EdWeekly.com, as students have been been learning in-person at some communities for almost a year. He said this knowing many communities around the country are classified as "highest risk." However, the President realizes it is not without challenges. “It is much better, much easier, to send kids K-8 back, because they are less likely to communicate the disease to somebody else,” Biden said. On Thursday, the CDC released new guidelines aimed at opening more PreK-12 schools. The recommendations lower the bar for return to school metrics but raises the bar for mitigations including recommending robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. It notes that mitigating transmission rates for teenagers is more challenging than with younger students, and the Federal Government is not mandating schools open. According to the VDH , schools should evaluate whether to open based upon the first two core indicators and their self-assessment of how well they implement five key measures: masks, social distancing, hand hygiene/respiratory etiquette, cleaning/disinfection, and contact tracing in collaboration with local health departments. It closely matches CDC guidelines. Not with standing, Prince William is numbers show the county could cut its COVID cases in half and still fall squarely within the “highest risk” category.  Prince William County Schools core indicator is a 508 cases per 100,000 residents as of Feb. 16. Highest risk begins at 200 and above, and the county’s percent-positive also falls within the highest risk category. Otherwise COVID-19 news is hopeful in the county. Vaccinations are on the rise (12% of Virginians and Prince William residents have received at least one dose) and hospitalizations are down. These are all secondary indicators that place Prince William County Schools at “low” and “lowest” risk with only 77% of hospital beds are occupied. PWCS has also made return to in-person learning safer for its employees. The vaccination of Prince William County Schools teachers and staff is well underway, making many teachers more confident about safely returning to the classroom. Teachers with high-risk health conditions and teachers currently teaching in person have been prioritized. And according to the Virginia Health Department, the new Johnson & Johnson one dose vaccine could become available in the U.S. as early as March. A spokesperson for the VDH said they are hopeful that the new vaccines will speed up the process. Yet at school board meetings, staff members allege it is not running as smoothly as the school division has described. Prince William teacher Brandie Provenzano told Bristow Beat that numerous teachers and support staff have come to her to say they have been asked to do things they are uncomfortable doing during the pandemic- things that places them at risk and are beyond the expectations of their contracts. And PWCS has admitted that they are struggling to get substitute teachers during the pandemic. PWCS Director of Communications Diana Gulotta said that when schools are struggling, they can turn to Human Resources for assistance. Last week, the division reached out to parents asking them to apply to become substitutes at $16 per hour. An additional risk is that there is now a new more-contagious variant, which could prove more difficult to mitigate especially as more students in schools could hasten community spread. School Board and Superintendent Need to Come to an Agreement Last time the school board voted on return to school dates it was highly controversial. For months school board members had told everyone that the decision would be left to the superintendent. However, even thought Superintendent Steven Walts recommended older students not return until after spring break. Chairman Babur Lateef wanted the school division to prepare to open sooner. Lateef said the “vaccine changes everything,” and he said schools are not a major source of community spread, and new CARES funding would help to meet needs. But Walts said he was still was looking at a number of logistical issues, and recognized middle school and high school students will not be isolated. “I just want to let you know- I’m not supportive of the plan. We will not have people (fully) vaccinated. hundreds and hundreds of kids pouring in." He added that the schools needs sufficient time to make the plan work. “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.” The Superintendent would continue to advise the school board if those opening dates were feasible in a safe manner and the superintendent retains the right to close schools that are unsafe. A few schools in the county have seen "outbreaks" as defined by two or more "close contacts" defined as people who have tested positive for COVID-19 who were in close contact for a 15 minutes or more, or repeated times, 6 feet from each other, during the "contagious period." Mask usage is also considered. A similar condition is required for quarantine. As that is a high bar, it is likely the spread has been more extensive than reported in schools. Recent data shows individual cases at schools has been precipitously on the rise since September not falling until February. In January the school division saw 899 cases including in-school and virtual staff member, students, visitors to the schools and family members in contact with the schools and offices. Half way through February, that number is 228 as of Wednesday. School board members say they may or may not take a vote on returning to school. If enough members are considering pushing back the return dates, or the superintendent advises they do, a vote may be taken. Otherwise, they'll move ahead with the plan. During the last vote, Loree Williams (Woodbridge), Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) and Adele Jackson (Brentsville) voted against the plan. The school board meeting has been moved to its original time of 7 p.m. It will be both virtual and in-person. Citizens' Time will be limited to 30 minutes.

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