After a more than seven-hour meeting Wednesday night that was full of criticism of Superintendent Steve Walts’ return-to-learn plan, the Prince William County School Board voted 5-3 to accept the plan and move on.
Two weeks ago, Walts surprised the school board and the public with a plan for returning only elementary school students back to in-person instruction -- with no plan for middle and high schools. The school board had voted in July for all grade levels to return to in-person instruction two days per week on Nov. 10. School Board Chairman Babur Lateef said board members were “blindsided” by the new model, which looked nothing like what they voted for.
At last night's meeting, Walts detailed his plan for middle and high schools, which would also slowly phase in those students two days a week in late January and early February. But the board appeared to expect more.
Board members asked why Walts couldn’t accelerate bringing even younger students back faster and questioned everything from his interpretation of Centers for Disease Control metrics to the school division’s planning abilities.
“I believe the school system has the skill and resources to do this,” Lateef said. “I believe we can bring students in and do it safely. I can’t support this plan.”
The county school division has taken a lot of heat from parents, the school board and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors this month over the last-minute switch, which brings only pre-kindergarten and kindergarten back to in-person instruction in November. Other elementary school grades would return in December and January, with middle and high school students phased in through late January to February.
Walts has repeatedly listed a litany of considerations school officials must address in bringing children back to classrooms, including staffing, transportation, maintaining CDC guidelines on distancing and mitigating risk, technology and training teachers on “concurrent” instruction, or teaching students in class and virtually at the same time.
At one point during the meeting, Walts challenged the board to vote on a new return-to-learn model of their choosing but warned implementing it probably wouldn’t be possible.
"We've always prided ourselves on the health and safety of our students and staff, and that's the cornerstone of this plan," said Walts, who spent much of the meeting defending teachers and staff for their hard work and creativity during constant pandemic-related changes.
Potomac District School Board member Justin Wilk said he couldn't support the plan and added the meeting highlighted the “dysfunctional” relationship between the board and the superintendent.
Occoquan District School Board member Lillie Jessie came to Walts’ defense, saying board members didn’t understand the amount of strategy and work that went into Walts' hybrid model.
“You're asking too much of these teachers and you're asking too much of this man," Jessie said.
Just before 1 a.m., board member Board Vice Chair Loree Williams, who represents the Woodbridge district, made a motion to accept Walts phased-in plan as presented and to give him the authority to change the plan as the pandemic continues to unfold.
Wilk, Lateef and Gainesville District School Board member Jennifer Wall voted against. Board members Williams, Jessie, Adele Jackson of the Brentsville District, Lisa Zargarpur of the Coles District and Diane Raulston of the Neabsco District voted in favor, passing the motion.