The Prince William County School Board must soon decide whether to move from “virtual learning” to a “50/50” model. The school division recently presented three options for the second marking period.
The options are remain status quo, implement 50% model for all levels, or phase the 50% model starting with K-3rd grade, Superintendent Steven Walts explained at the Sept. 16 school board meeting.
The school division did not provide much additional information on what the 50/50 model would look like since so much remains undetermined.
The school board adopted a directive in July to return virtual-only for the vast majority of students. The goal to move to a 50% in-person model in the second quarter. That means 2 days a week in-person in smaller classes. Parents could elect for their children to remain 100% virtual. For those attending virtually, their classes would align with in-person students. All plans are subject to change at this juncture.
"It is imperative that should the School Board choose to deviate from this plan, staff must be informed as soon as possible," Walts said.
Health concerns remain the primary issue. Over the week leading up to the school board meeting, PWCS required six students and 11 staff members to take a two-week quarantine, either for testing positive for COVID-19 or coming in close contact with someone who had.
“ COVID remain at current or increased levels, there is the likelihood that positive cases may occur within schools, and that may require staff and students to quarantine,” Walts told the board.
A 50/50 model was laid out over the summer. Students electing to return to school would be grouped and attend school two days a week. That amounts to half the face time than students now have with teachers through their Zoom. Asynchronous work over the internet will continue on other weekdays. Classes would be ½-1/3 their usual size, allowing students to sit at least three feet a part. Students would be required to wear face masks.
The second marked period starts on Nov. 4, right after Election Day. Walts said if they choose to transition , he would push the first day of school back two days to allow for proper cleaning of the building. “The first in-person 50% day will be November 10 – with a reminder that November 11 is a holiday.”
Several school board members recommended returning to in-class learning for Kindergarten-3rd graders only. Those students require the most supervision and assistance. Children under 9 seemingly have the lowest rates of COVID-19, especially cases that lead to severe illness.
But Parents will have to decide if they would send their children in-person or keep them at 100% virtual before the school board makes its decision. This is so that parents’ desires can inform that decision. “For your reference, based on the ParentVUE data collected last month, approximately 61,000 students indicated they will return in-person and 32,000 would prefer to remain virtual,” Walts said.
Beyond what was presented in July, the school division cannot provide details as to what a 50/50 model will look like since there are many factors at play, and decisions have yet to be made.
“It is important to remember that we continue to work out details as parents update their choices about whether or not their students are coming back in person. We also have to consider our staff needs too. There are some, based on health reasons, who cannot come back in person yet, so that impacts schedules, etc.,” said Diana Gulotta, Director of Communications for Prince William County Schools.
Walts said at the school board meeting that some teachers would have both virtual and in-person students, but that won’t be true for all students.
“It really depends on staffing requirements and the selections of our students. We will work out those details once we have more information from staff and parents,” Gulotta. "Not always,” would virtual-only students be assigned to virtual-only teachers, she said.
Gulotta expects in-person students will interact with students in a more traditional manner. “I don’t think students in-person would need a device to receive the in-person learning unless that particular lesson requires it.”
While school board will have to consider numerous factors considering COVID-19 data is most important.
“At this time, the Prince William Health District considers Northern Virginia to have low community transmission of COVID. The current COVID case incidence rate in Prince William County per 110,000 is 13.7%,” Walts said in his talking points.
Funding PPE is also a consideration. Recently, the Board of County Supervisors provided the school division with an additional $20 million in CARES funds to help with immediate needs.
Other logistics include school schedules and busing. High school classes would return to beginning at 7:30 a.m. School buses would do double runs to allow students to social distance.
Teachers are likely to have strong opinions on whether they wish to return in-person, and PWCS often considers what neighboring school divisions are doing.
Any change from all virtual model, will involve another period of transition. However, the goal remains to return to in-person learning when it is safe to do so, and to make changes as quickly as possible.
Parents, teachers/staff members and older students may write to their school board members to share their input.