With all students who chose to return to in-person learning back in the classroom on a part-time basis, Prince William County Public Schools teachers and students are learning how to deal with a new reality: largely empty classrooms.
Numbers will continue to change, but according to the school system’s communications staff, a majority of elementary, middle and high school families are choosing to keep their students at home to continue with virtual learning.
From kindergarten through fifth grade, 46% of students are back in classrooms, with the rest staying home. For sixth- to eighth-graders, 35% of students have chosen hybrid learning, and only 30% of high schoolers are back in person.
Diana Gulotta, the division’s director of communications services, said exact numbers for teachers are not available but that most are back in classrooms, teaching in-person and virtual students simultaneously four days a week.
With in-person students split between two “houses,” with one house in the classroom on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays, teachers who had become used to fully virtual classrooms are figuring out how to engage students in the classroom while most are still online. And students in classrooms are adjusting to not being with their classmates.
“It’s very quiet, like uncomfortably quiet," Cameron Thacker, a senior at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, told InsideNoVa. “They weren’t kidding about barely any people in class. Two of my classes were just me and some other person.”
Administrators also told the school board last week that juggling virtual and in-person instruction at the same time is not easy. For the most part, teachers remain at their desks, many separated by plexiglass barriers from the students in the classroom.
Jehovanni Mitchell, the principal of George Hampton Middle School in Woodbridge, said engaging with both students on the screen and those in their seats is a challenge.
“Our teachers and staff are overwhelmed and overworked doing the virtual teaching and now the concurrent learning,” she said. “It’s twice the work, or maybe triple the work that they’re used to. They’re definitely feeling stress and anxiety, and in addition to that they’re worried about their health.”
All county school staff members have had the opportunity to receive the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and clinics at Unity Reed High School are being held this week to deliver second doses.
Before hybrid learning started for most students at the end of February, families were sent two surveys about whether they would opt to send their students into classrooms or not. If a family didn’t respond, they were assumed to be returning. But if a family said they would remain virtual, the division says that choice can’t be changed for the current third quarter. Families have until Friday to notify their schools if they’d like to have their students return to school buildings for the fourth quarter, which begins April 6.
“Please note that due to required health mitigations, transportation, and other logistical considerations, your student’s schedule and teacher assignments could change to accommodate the in-person attendance,” the division said in a notice to families. “Additionally, depending upon available classroom space, some students may be less than 6 feet apart with additional health mitigations, as approved by the Virginia Department of Health.”
So far in March, the county schools have reported 70 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, but only 13 were deemed to have had close contact with anyone else in the division, and the majority of those infected were either virtual only or did not come into a school building while infected.
Daria Groover, the principal at Featherstone Elementary School in Woodbridge, said the burden on staff has been particularly large for those who’ve already been in the building teaching English-language learners and special education students, often four times a week.
Now, with more students back in the classroom, the school is undergoing testing for English-language learners, adding to the load on teachers, for whom Mondays are generally virtual-only days.
“Those folks are tired because they’ve been doing this for month after month, and our staff has not been taking days off, they work. Not that they can’t, but they understand … the challenge of trying to find folks who can do all of this that they’ve learned how to do,” Groover said.
“When you have a school where 70% of your students are English learners, and those children are being asked to be tested in person, my ESOL team is going above and beyond trying to test on Mondays, because they don’t want to take away from the instruction on Tuesday through Friday.”
Gianna Jirak contributed to this article.