PWCS Sends More Students, Health-Compromised Teachers Back into Buildings

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Photo by Ashleigh Henegar

Prince William County students are returning to school even as Prince William County reached a 20% positivity rate for COVID-19* over the last week.

As of Tuesday morning, Prince William had 18.3% positivity rate for COVID-19, meaning that percentage of RT-PCR tests that have been positive over the last 14 days, according to vdh.virginia.gov.

The school board is scheduled to meet, Jan. 6. At that time the Superintendent, Dr. Steven Walts, will provide a pandemic update. There is no vote scheduled.

Prince William County Schools is the only K-12 public school division in Northern Virginia (Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier, Manassas City), that has not gone to all virtual learning for its general population students. Prince William County currently the highest rates of COVID-19 in the region.

If nothing changes, PWCS will be returning more grades to hybrid learning model. Grades 3-high school are scheduled to return by the end of the month. All-virtual learning is also an option for those students, and one that a majority of families have opted for in the first marking period.

Additionally, some ADA designated Tier 1 with serious health risks, or Tier 2 employees, who have family members with significant health risks, have been told they must return to school or take an unpaid leave of absence. Others, fear that will be the outcome of meetings they have scheduled with HR. Instead, of working from home, some teachers have instead been told the division will provide them with some in-school accommodations such as additional PPE.

PWCS has not yet provided the numbers of how many employees will be allowed to teach or work remotely in 2021, nor if the decision is site-based.

Overall, the Prince William County School Board has left the decision-making to its division-level administration, which is working closely with the Prince William Health Department.

“Decisions are guided by health metrics and local, state, and national health experts. The health metrics in Prince William County indicate an ongoing moderate-high risk for the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in schools," said PWCS on its website. "As such, PWCS is reopening at the maximum recommended capacity for in-person learning based on phase guidance for Virginia schools.

While PWCS ranks itself as “Moderate-High” on its website, Core 1 and 2 Indicators show that the Prince William community is now at “Highest” risk. It is only its own evaluation of its mitigations that allow it to fall within “Moderate-High.” The CDC recommends that only specific learners, those at highest risk and primary grades, K-3, be served in the classroom. PWCS is planning to bring back even high school students this month.

Occoquan School Board member Lillie Jessie is leading the charge to slow the return to school efforts and allow more teachers to work remotely. She said she is the “lone school board member,” advocating for this.

“All the schools around us have decided to go virtual, so why aren’t we?” she said, in a phone interview, Friday. She said has been told the mitigations are excellent but has not seen the proof as the division has not done the PPE audit she requested.

She is concerned that PWCS has no concrete metrics that would trigger going all virtual. Without them she believes people will be put in “potentially unsafe” situations. She said that she has received more emails from teachers than she has ever received. People are very concerned for their health and the health of their families, and teachers typically do not like to sign their names to things. In this case, they are, said Jessie, and that should be a red flag.

Some employees have cancer, some are pregnant, and others are caring for very ill relatives. Teachers are deciding whether to resign, retire, take a leave-of-absence, or come in to work in opposition to their doctor's recommendations. Jessie does not believe they should be forced to make those kinds of decisions.

“This school system has great teachers. These teachers have given so much to this county and just the perception that we don’t care about their safety…” said Jessie. “People are afraid.”

She said she also wants the best for the students and has asked that there be various ways to help students who are having issues with online learning. In the long run, she said the best answer is not to lose quality employees.

Jessie said she is not undecided as to whether everyone should be virtual, but knows they need to make changes to protect the health of students and teachers.“Initially I was an advocate. It was phased in; it was the little kids that really needed it, but then the numbers kept rising.” She is concerned it could become unsafe. “How many kids are really in quarantine? How many staff members have it?”

School Board Chairman, Dr. Babur Lateef has been steadfast in his assertion that students who choose so, should be served in the classroom. He has said that PWCS’s mitigation strategies are excellent. Woodbridge School Board member Loree Williams commented that she is trusting the superintendent.

Many Tier 1 teachers do not know where they stand, until they have a conversation with the Department of Retirement and Benefits. They are not guaranteed they will be able to work from home. Even some elementary teachers, who were previously granted all-virtual, are now being asked to come in.

PWCS said that teachers may not be accommodated with all remote teaching if it provides an “undue” hardship to PWCS.

“An accommodation poses an undue hardship if it results in significant difficulty or expense for PWCS, taking into account the nature and cost of the accommodation, the resources available to PWCS, and the operations of the school division, including delivery of instruction to students," said HR information provided by the division.

Potomac School Board member Justin Wilk posted a statement on Facebook, Sunday. Although he said he is dedicated to the hybrid model, he said he believes Tier 1 employees need to be Virtual-Only.

“I have stated many times my belief in the need to continue with plans to offer in person learning for our students... While some students are having great success online, we know many are struggling. That being said, we must also strive to take care of our most vulnerable teachers with underlying medical conditions who are considered 'increased risk' under CDC guidelines. We depend on all of our teachers to deliver a world-class education to our students and communities.”

"Asking our increased risk Tier 1 staff, who have been approved for ADA accommodations to either return in person, take leave, resign, or retire, is not how we should treat the people we depend on most," he wrote. "Furthermore, I feel strongly that the resignation of significant numbers of increased risk Tier 1 teachers is not best for students. I believe that providing a virtual work assignment for our increased risk Tier 1 teachers would prevent a significant number of resignations and allow students to continue with their current teachers. While this will pose logistical challenges for schools, I trust that PWCS leadership will work with and support each of our schools in finding creative solutions to meet the unique needs of all of our students and staff."

Several teachers have talked to Bristow Beat about their experiences with requesting Tier 1 or 2 accommodations.

One high school teacher is Tier 1, 2 and 3. However, her principal has indicated she will be required to come into school since 25 other staff members have requested to work remotely and the school cannot accommodate all of those requests. If that is the case, she plans to take a leave of absence. “The situation to me is just dire.”

She has health problems herself that qualifies her as Tier 1. She also has Tier 2 concerns as a caregiver for family members. Her teenage daughter had life-threatening brain cancer that she battled for two years. It is a “miracle” that she survived, said her mother. It is currently “stable,” but not eradicated, said her mother, and the chemo made her more susceptible to long-term health problems.

The teacher is also the primary care giver to her 98-year-old aunt who has serious kidney problems. And, she assists her daughter who is also special education during the day, making her a Tier 3 employee as well.

The teacher does not think accommodating her causes the school a hardship. She teaches a core subject in a big department and works cooperatively with a special education teacher who can be in her classroom at all the times.

As she already took a leave of absence for two years when her daughter was ill. Taking another leave would be a financial hardship for her family who is just catching up after hundreds of thousands owed in medical bills. She is grateful that her husband has a well-paying job and health insurance. She knows that others do not have that option.

But she says that as a black woman she also sees how hard people of color have been hit by COVID-19. It is reality white people may not realize.

Another woman told Bristow Beat how she teaches ELL and special education at an elementary school and had worked remotely in 2020, but now believes she is being asked to return to the building.

She is 61 and has health conditions that make her Tier 1. She is even more concerned for her husband. He is older than her, retired and has a litany of serious health concerns. She hopes they will grant her request to work from home.

UPDATE, Jan. 6 at 1:51 p.m.: 

Brentsville school board member provided this statement to Bristow Beat, Tuesday evening:

The Superintendent and his staff created a return-to-building plan that was slow and methodical, it prioritized the safety of students and staff. Dr. Walts and his staff are in consistent contact with the Health Department and I continue to look to them to institute needed modifications to ensure the safety of staff and students. The School Board delegated authority to the Superintendent to make operational decisions necessary to protect student and staff health because he has access to real time data and should have the ability to make data driven decisions. Tier 1 teachers are meeting with the HR Department and I am not privy to personnel discussions or decisions.  I continue to listen to parents, teachers, and student concerns and consider all vantage points.

Chairman Lateef responded Tuesday morning and is willing to participate in an interview. Coles board member Lisa Zargarpur said she has been in contact with HR about concerns mentioned in the article.

*CORRECTION: The positivity rate is for the Prince William Community, not the schools. Tuesday's percent positivity rate is 18.3%. 

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