The Prince William County School Board asked Superintendent Steven Walts to present a plan that would offer 100% in-person learning by the fall semester, signaling to parents that fully in-school instruction would likely be available for families who want it come next school year, barring any dramatic changes in the pandemic’s trajectory.
The board directed Walts to present a plan at their next meeting on May 3 that would offer a two-track system; one for students and families who wanted 100% classroom learning and the other for those who wanted to be fully virtual. But several board members said they were reluctant to continue to offer hybrid learning once the new school year comes around, citing teachers who preferred one or the other over the simultaneous teaching that’s currently taking place in all Prince William County schools.
Several board members also said that they didn’t expect to hold a vote on the return plan until much later, but that they wanted to lay out for families what the fall could look like.
“I’m looking at this as an opportunity to have the public know that we are thinking about this as a school division, as a board,” Vice Chair Loree Williams said Wednesday night. “We’re looking for what Dr. Walts’ input and what his staff’s input is … we’re not here to make a decision for the superintendent.”
A day earlier, the superintendent for the state’s biggest school division, Fairfax, said that county’s students would return to full in-person learning during the fall with only “limited” options for virtual learning in the case of medical reasons.
For the second biggest division in the commonwealth, the Prince William County board asked for a plan that would allow students who opted out of in-person learning for any reason to be accommodated. Board Chair Babur Lateef said he wanted the division to be prepared in case a bill that will be taken up in the General Assembly’s special session passes. Sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-12th), the bill would require that all local school divisions offer both options based solely on choice.
In his fiscal year 2022 budget, Walts included money to explore a virtual-only high school, but that would be separate from any plan for the fall, which could include the virtual option for all grade levels and with different teachers than their in-person counterparts would have.
Currently, all school grades are operating under both a hybrid and virtual model. Those who’ve selected some in-person instruction are in classrooms two days per week, while others are still only learning from home. For the third quarter, fewer than half of all students in the division had opted for any in-person learning, but division staff have said that number is likely to increase for the fourth quarter beginning April 4.
Those students that have chosen to return to school are split up in half, with different “houses” coming in on different days to limit classroom crowding. For teachers, this means that four days out of the week are spent doing simultaneous instruction for students physically present in the classroom and those online.
Walts, who will retire after the current school year, asked the board to allow for more crossover between the in-person and virtual students and staff, saying that some students might need to change models and that some teachers had found they could handle simultaneous instruction aptly. He said that he and division staff were already working on a plan that would offer 100% in-person learning for the fall, but that standing up a fully in-person option that could accommodate thousands of students and run totally distinctly from the in-person schooling by that time would be a tall order.
“We can definitely do as good or better as we’re doing now for kids to be 100% virtual or go to school five days a week in person, which we’re pretty much experts at,” he told the board Wednesday night. “... We have plans that I would like to share with you [May 3] that we believe might be very attractive to certain students who may still want to do part in-person and part virtual, because of child-care issues, because of jobs [parents] might have.”
Lateef said that Walts could bring a plan with more flexibility built in, as long as there were options for both fully in-person and fully virtual. Regardless, the board likely won’t finalize any plan next month.