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Mostly empty classrooms a new reality in Prince William

Only 30% of county high-schoolers chose hybrid learning

  • Updated
  • 15
  • 3 min to read
Hylton first day

Hylton High School freshmen whose families opted for in-person learning had their first day in a high school building on Thursday, Feb. 25.

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. 


Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at



Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at

(15) comments


Everything averages out. Summers off to recharge. Need to update the same lesson plans previously used to adapt to online learning. Dealing with the problem children and helicopter parents. I call it a draw. School Board needs to provide better tools to eliminate duplicate work. Its not that expensive to link the systems.

PWC resident since '69

Open the buildings, get kids back. Kids are learning nothing except how to work the system. Box checking, thank you Governor


So tell me if the schools are so short of students why is PWC ready to build another High school? Which will be a driver for the proposed 7% tax increase - just what we need at this time.


You mean another two high schools. Colgan and Patriot were limited to 1500 capacity because of some crock ordinance. Patriot now has trailer "learning villages"--go Pioneers! Gainesville (if they call it that) may alleviate some of the crammed classes. But in the end, what about the older schools? Shouldn't we make them better or rebuild them before launching a new 100 million dollar school? Better yet, make classrooms out of the wasteful central office building. Send all the suits to the trailer parks!

Janelle Anderson

Tman - Please look up the Facebook group called Our Schools. We discuss PWCS education issues. Regarding why teachers are so tired from concurrent learning, which means teaching online and in person at the same time, I think it is because the online lessons are time consuming to prepare. Then there is the issue of the gradebooks. The Canvas grade book is not linked to the Parent Vue gradebook but the ParentVue gradebook is the official gradebook. Teachers must manually enter each grade twice, once in Canvas and once in Parent Vue. Seems easy but a middle school teacher can have 120 students and if each student has 10 grades per quarter then that teacher has to enter a minimum of 2400 grades each quarter. Then when a student switches from virtual to in person, or in person to virtual, the teachers have to switch them in the gradebook and I don't know the details but it gets complicated.


“Our teachers and staff are overwhelmed and overworked doing the virtual teaching and now the concurrent learning,”

My daughter's 5th grade class gets 2 45 minute zooms with her teacher and 1 30 minute 'encore' zoom. The rest of her time, including all of Monday, is asynchronous learning. The classroom time is the same, though the teacher is there in person, not via zoom.

Could a PWCS elementary teacher explain to me how they are overworked, spending less than half the time they would normally spend actually teaching? I guarantee that all of the kids are woefully behind, unless the parents are augmenting their education significantly at home.

Janelle Anderson

Tman - In addition to my reply above, I would also add that these two principals were quoted from their interviews at the 3/3/21 school board meeting. The interview happens towards the beginning of the meeting. All PWCS school board meetings are recorded and if you google PWCS School board meeting 3/3/21 you will find the recording. Each school board member was able to ask each principal multiple questions. If you really want to know what is going on with the pandemic and schools, watching this interview would help. I would also note that 11 PWCS principals were interviewed by the school board at the 2/17/21 meeting. School board meetings go on for hours but if you just wanted to watch the interviews it would give you insight as to what the teachers, principals, parents and students are facing.


Janelle - thank you for the information. I can appreciate the issues surrounding Canvas and COVID making things more difficult, and will watch the interviews. I remain concerned about kids only getting 2hr of total instruction time 4 days a week. Total lack of social interaction in the classrooms as well, and just a bit of socially distanced recess.

Stephanie Richardson

Teaching in multi-faceted modalities such as these times relect require an immense amount of prep and planning. Teaching is not as simple as you state when you only observe what you see. Just like theatre, musical productions, etc., few see all the time and effort it takes in advance of the performance. I suggest you "shadow" a teacher to get a realistic appreciation for what you so naively express in your comment.


What exactly is naive about expressing a question about how teachers spend their time, and being concerned over kids receiving less than half the prior instruction time?

What I hear when I ask these questions is a lot of defensive posturing, and no attempt to address the question.

A Tired Teacher

Hi! PWCS secondary teacher here. I have a little under 300 students for three different grade levels at my school. I get about 3 hours of planning time a week. Here’s my general schedule:

Mondays - meetings, meetings, meetings. Trainings. New information about what we are changing this week. Coordinating with my team to make sure we are on the same page. Office Hours to meet with students. I have two free hours on Monday to plan, put together materials, grade, and respond to emails.

Tuesdays - teaching all day. I have 25 minutes to eat lunch and run to the printer. We have asynchronous time, but that is filled with emails, setting up for the next round of students, running students to the bathroom, and cleaning.

Wednesday- Friday - Same thing. Two of those days I get a 1.5 hour planning period. It is taken up by meetings for IEPs, lunch/bus duties, and responding to student questions and emailing parents. I can maybe grade one assignment for 100 students and put it in the gradebook and give proper feedback in one planning period. Again, I only get two of these a week.

Sundays (I take a break on Saturdays) - I spend the entire day prepping. I have three different courses with 3-4 classes for each course. Each lesson takes about an hour or two. Then I need to create the Canvas modules (hour for all) and the assignments (another hour). Then I need to convert everything to make it accessible for asynchronous kids. I record 30 minute lesson videos for each lesson, along with videos for the assignments, so that kids aren’t completely lost if they miss my class. Then I have to upload and edit those videos and caption them, then make assignments for my students who require differentiation (SPED and ELLs). Add in IEP reports and emailing parents and students about grades. Then I change over my grade books, again, because I have over 30 that are constantly changing. Then I grade more. I probably spend 60+ hours a week on all of this. With virtual, you need to have a plan for everything. Everything is set in stone before the students come in. I need to have a PowerPoint slide for everything. Plus I need to make it engaging. If we have a game that week, add another hour or two. Also, we need to check in with students for their mental health too. So add in emailing counselors and students and parents for that too.

It’s a lot of work. In-person, you would normally be able to have an activity where they can play and have fun, and it fills the time. Now. We don’t have that. And it is so much more work. I’m not trying to complain. I love it, but I am also burnt out and exhausted. We are humans. We can’t perform miracles. And everyone should stop expecting us to.

John Dutko

Great! I hope the students take advantage of the low student-to-teacher ratio and increase their GPA.


I'm not sure if that's what will occur, simply because the teacher in the classroom is still simultaneously providing the lecture to the students who chose to remain remote learners. I'm encouraged that some of the kids who know they can probably focus better in the classroom setting are choosing to come to class, and who miss the social aspects of learning, but as far as taking advantage of the low student-to-teacher ratio, not sure because its not as if they get more undivided attention.

We'll see.

PWC resident since '69

This is for tired teacher! W t f? You are doing something totally is not the time you put in it, but what you put in to the time...lighten up most kids are working system and don’t give a damn

A Tired Teacher

The thing is... this is the bare minimum of things I need to do. If I don’t grade things, I get in trouble (we have to have a minimum number of grades for the county). If I don’t have lessons, I get in trouble. I see my each students once a week, so I have to pack my lessons to meet my standards. If I don’t have videos/immersive reader compatible assignments in Canvas, I get in trouble with parents and could get in trouble for not providing accommodations for students who truly need them (because I do have students who truly need and use these tools to succeed). We as teachers have had to relearn how to teach. And we are expected to be experts who can solve every problem in the world over night. Something I’m doing is right, though I don’t know what it is. The kids are still learning, but some of them are just so overwhelmed by virtual that they just shut down. They’re traumatized. We all are. We are working our tails off to make things work in the hybrid model, but it is twice or three times the work than a normal school year.

Also, to the person talking about instructional time being cut in half. Yes. Technically instruction has been cut in half. At my school, half of the period is asynchronous time for students to complete work. In the classroom, it works out to be about the same, when you count average time spent in class working in groups/individually, albeit those chunks are usually shorter and more spread out and built into the lesson. That asynchronous time is time in class for students to complete their assignments and ask questions from me. That’s just my perspective at my school though.

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