PWCS Superintendent Outlines Extended Distance Learning Plan During COVID-19 Closure


At the Prince William County Emergency School Board meeting, Wednesday, Superintendent Steven Walts announced a more standardized plan for teachers to follow when providing online instruction during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Materials and content posted online are still optional for students, but teachers will have to post weekly assignments and conducting "office hours."

While previously the school division had planned to reopen its buildings after spring break, now schools will not reopen at all this school year as Virginia is under an extended "stay-at-home" order.

However, the school division decided it would be prudent to continue to offer enrichment and review materials until mid June.

Social Distancing Meeting

April 1 was the first remote meeting for the Prince William County School Board. School Board members and Dr. Walts participated in the video conference from their home offices. Over 700 people viewed the meeting via Go To Webinar but could not participate. 

Additionally, the board voted to suspend Citizen’s Time until Virginia's "stay-at-home" order is lifted. Board members invite residents to email them their thoughts and concerns, and assured them they do want to hear from them. 

Grading and Assignments

The students final grades for the year will be an average of the first three marking periods in each of their subjects or classes. There will be no fourth marking period that is graded and no final exams.

PWCS is being very lenient in allowing students to improve their grades by extending the third marking period until April 24.

Teachers should not grade any material they assigned after March 13. They must accept late work and redoes. Teachers may also factor in supplemental assignments from the unofficial fourth marking period if they increase the student’s grade.

“Student’s grades will only be able to go up from where they were on March 13," Walts said. 

The “fourth quarter” will be ungraded. “All students will be able to continue to submit optional work.” Teachers will provide feedback rather than grades. They are encouraged to provide review material and enrichment material, not busy work. 

The school year extends until June 12, or May 29 for graduating seniors.

“Finally, on June 12, K-11 instruction concludes, and diplomas will be mailed to graduates. As I mentioned earlier, we will continue to seek methods of celebrating our graduates either virtually or in-person," Walts said. 

Walts does not families to feel pressured during these extraordinary times.

“My highest priority remains the physical and mental health of students and staff. It is simply not fair, nor realistic, to expect our teachers, students, and administrators - or families - to replicate the school day at home,” said Walts. “I want our teachers to know, our students to know, and our staff to know – it’s ok. We are all in this together – we will work together to do the best we can to support one another – and that’s what matters.”

“My highest priority remains the physical and mental health of students and staff. It is simply not fair, nor realistic, to expect our teachers, students, and administrators - or families - to replicate the school day at home,” Walts said.[/pullquote]

Online Expectations for Students & Teachers

Walts announced that they have created some across-the-board standards for school educators to follow during distance learning. 

“Upon teachers return from spring break, we will implement phase four and five focused on home learning and our ‘Virtual Schoolhouse,’” Walts said.

“All teachers will continue uploading content review instruction, lessons, and assignments as well as learning resources/activities according to the advertised phase 4….Teachers can assign or provide feedback along with continued guidance and support for students on extended offline learning personal projects.”

Teachers will provide students with a "block period" of work per week, and conduct a block period of "office hours" for interactions with students. There will also be counseling hours or time set aside for another activities at the discretion of principals.

For elementary students, those blocks are 60 minutes long. Middles school blocks are 90 minutes, and high school blocks 120 minutes.

This means a high school students may have two hour of math assignments per week, two hours of English, science, social studies, etc. They could do the work according to their own schedule, or not at all. 

“Schools will be required to adhere to the time allotments and communicate the schedule they decide out to their communities,” said Walts.

Students are not required to participate, but he hopes teachers will make the assignments engaging and enriching. 

Providing Digital Equity

Prince William County Schools aims to invest $10 million in new laptop computers for at home use. Why settle for the middle class laptops that you see around? They will facilitate distance learning for students and facilitate school ‘homework’ assignments during normal operations.

PWCS has already made a large bulk purchase of laptops for high school students at the cost of $5 million plus dollars.

“To this end, I am pleased to announce that using a combination of existing technology funding and flex funding – we have placed an order for more than 15,500 HP Touchscreen laptops for our students,” Walts said.

More about laptops for at-home learning.

Remote Learning/Teaching Platforms

“In order to make online learning more consistent and easier for students and teachers, we will be deploying an online Learning Management System called Canvas to all teachers,” Walts announced. 

The system enables virtual learning and interaction between students and teachers.

“This system will enable teachers to share lesson plans and integrate digital tools, like videos from Discovery Education. This will also tie into The Hub to help teachers with their classroom management," said Walts. "Much of this was part of our Digital Equity Plan presented to the board a few weeks ago during our FY 2020-2021 budget work sessions – we are now accelerating a multi-year plan into just a few weeks."

Walts noted that most teachers have already begun updating students daily via existing tools and class pages and technology platforms.

Special Ed, EL and Accommodations

Students who receive special accommodations will continue to receive them through distance learning. This will require a cooperation between classroom teachers and supplemental teachers. Those supplemental teachers must make appropriate modifications. 

“Teachers of students with disabilities and teachers of students who are English learners (EL) will offer virtual support at specific communicated times as well as ensure they are fulfilling the ongoing expectation that they continue to co-plan for supports, scaffolds, and accommodations for their students,” Walts said.

“While every support given to students in a face-to-face setting may not be possible, it remains our intention and expectation to make a good faith effort to provide every virtual/distance learning support possible to our students during this unprecedented time.”

Retrieving Items in School Buildings 

As students and staff left school not knowing when they would be returning, there are personal items that were left behind. Walts said he is aware that students and staff members may want to retrieve those items, but PWCS will not be reopening buildings.

He said they are following CDC guidelines and everything has already been sanitized. Opening building up would disrupt that, and the priority is keeping people safe.

“Allowing access into classrooms or lockers increases health risks for everyone and would require greater areas of buildings to be cleaned by staff. The buildings are secure, and items are safe.”

On a Personal Note

Walts said he was saddened to learn of the Loudon County teacher who died due to the COVID virus. He said there have been no fatalities within the PWCS school community and he prays it remains so. Walts thanked his staff especially those in I-T who helped make distance learning a reality.

School board members thanked Walts and his team for excellent leadership during a difficult time.

They extended compassion towards seniors who would not be able to have a prom or a traditional graduation, and said they are looking for ways to celebrate them. There is also a possibility of celebrating at a later date if the stay-at-home order is lifted and people are allowed to gather again.

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