The halls of Occoquan Elementary School were quiet Tuesday, but not for lack of children. About 20% to 30% percent of the students returned, navigating the new world of school in a pandemic.
Traditional desks were placed far apart, while some classrooms had circular desks with plexiglass dividers to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In the cafeteria, 12-foot tables sat mostly empty, with just two pupils sitting at opposite ends of each to eat lunch.
Across Prince William County, masked up and colorful backpacks in place, about 6,000 of the youngest students are heading back into classrooms this week for the first time since March.
Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students are the first to return under a 50/50 hybrid model approved by the School Board last month, with about 3,000 each attending on assigned days. First-graders are expected to follow, as long as coronavirus numbers allow it, on Dec. 1, with the remaining grades on staggered return schedules through early February.
Students are attending two alternating days a week. Parents can still opt to keep their children home, learning remotely, and about 40% plan to do so.
The decision to bring children back to in-person learning is based on health metrics for Prince William, which remains in a moderate to high risk for the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in schools, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Staggering students’ return is based on state guidance that students with disabilities, English learners, and pre-kindergarten through third-grade students should be prioritized for in-person learning.
The school system’s newest students are learning more than reading and writing. Under the current plan, students attending in person must do a daily home screening for COVID-19 symptoms and cannot go to school if symptoms are present. The in-person model is based on a minimum 3 feet of social distance for most classrooms, which will be required and monitored at all times. Face coverings will be required for students and staff most of the time when less than 6 feet of social distance is possible, including on school buses.
“We are happy that, for the most part, students have accepted mask-wearing through the school day,” Occoquan Elementary Principal Buddy Lint said Tuesday, adding that there is an occasional reminder to a student to pull the mask up over his or her nose.
While routines and classrooms were much different, parents and school officials called Tuesday a success.
“Mine said he had a good day and liked school, that makes me so happy!” Sara Coolbaugh-Mercado wrote on InsideNoVa’s Facebook page.
“My little girl was so happy to be back,” Maria Rico wrote.
“What an awesome day with kindergarteners in the building at Bristow Run Elementary School,” school officials wrote on Twitter. “Our staff has worked so hard to prepare for today. We all left happy!”
Parents listed a variety of reasons for sending their children back to in-person learning, from work logistics to worries about too much screen time. But for the most part, they said they felt their children’s education was suffering with virtual-only learning.
“I want my child to get the best education possible, and I know he will get a better education in a school and not in my living room,” Michael McLean wrote on Facebook. “I know that does not make me a selfish person. I know that science says that children his age have statistically no to little chance of having complications due to COVID-19.”
At the Nov. 4 School Board meeting, Superintendent Steve Walts cautioned that plans to bring back more students are dependent on health metrics and staffing.
“We continue to monitor local health metrics, and the trends are not positive, as COVID cases grow locally, regionally, and nationally,” Walts said.