Some Prince William supervisors and School Board members sharply criticized county school leaders this week after they wavered on a return of students to classrooms in November.
At a joint meeting with the Prince William School Board on Tuesday night, the Board of County Supervisors allocated another $15.9 million of federal CARES Act funding for county schools to buy webcams, outfit school buses and fund a host of other measures designed to prepare the division for hybrid in-person and online learning.
During a School Board meeting Oct. 7, superintendent Steve Walts had cited technology, staffing, training and transportation issues as among the reasons for a surprise change in plans for in-person learning.
Walts’ new plan, announced at that meeting, will bring back only pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students in early November, with the remainder of elementary school grades staggered through the end of January. No dates were provided for returning middle and high school students to class.
Republicans supervisors chastised the school board and division staff for not following the 50/50 hybrid plan approved in July, which would have brought all grade levels back to school Nov. 10 for two days a week.
“I felt like you pulled the rug out from under many, many parents,” said Brentsville District Supervisor Jeanine Lawson said. “I found it really frustrating for so many families. You had to have some foresight ahead of last Wednesday, Oct. 7, so I just was really frustrated and could relate as a parent to the many, many families.”
At the joint meeting, Walts told supervisors he would present another plan for the eventual return of older students at the school board’s Oct. 21 meeting, but insisted it would be subject to change based on guidance from the state’s health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We look at the Virginia Department of Health guidance and currently, their guidance is to begin bringing the Pre-K to [grade] three based on current indicators. … There’s a lot of uncertainty because there’s a lot of uncertainty with the pandemic,” Walts said. “We have to be very careful about how we plan. What I’m trying to do with my staff and with the feedback from the medical community is to bring back something that works and something that sticks, that we don’t have to hopefully have constant reversals.”
But Lawson said Walts and the school board weren’t offering enough clarity for parents. Initially, the division had said it was aiming to get all students back in classrooms to some extent for the second quarter of the school year, only to have Walts hold off on a plan for the older students.
School Board Chair Babur Lateef said he understood that they had “let people down,” but added that the board has been clear that plans and targets were fluid.
Occoquan School Board Member Lillie Jessie came to the division’s defense, saying that as long as the virus isn’t under control, the board wouldn’t have complete control over when students could be back in classrooms.
“What I saw from [Prince William Health District Director Allison] Ansher was, we were in the moderate range, moderate to high, I think. So there’s no way, as a principal, that I would agree to bring teachers back to be with a thousand kids all day long,” Jessie said. “I guess what I’m asking you guys is to give Dr. Walts and his staff time to make a decision.”
Walts listed a series of considerations for the staggered return to in-person learning. He said school staff is still preparing technology and has to train teachers in pandemic safety measures. Transportation still had to be planned, and staff was trying to determine how many teachers are returning and how many would be needed. At least 500 county teachers with health conditions will need to work remotely.
PLANS FALL ‘FAR SHORT’
Not all school board members are buying the delay, though.
Gainesville District School Board member Jennifer Walls said she went into last week’s meeting expecting to hear an update on bringing students back to class starting Nov. 10. Instead what she heard fell “far short” of the expectations of parents and the community.
“What I heard instead gave me the impression that the superintendent’s office is not physically or mentally prepared to return on November 10th,” she said. “Although the 10th is still a month away, the superintendent told us that technology may not be in place, teachers may not be trained, and employees may not be returning. All this, despite every other report we’ve received from district staff so far and despite the school district’s own FAQ documents showing steady progress and commitment toward being ready to return to in-person instruction on November 10th.”
Lateef said school board members were somewhat blindsided by the new plan, which they only received at the start of the Oct. 7 meeting. Many weren’t happy that Walts abandoned the 50/50 model they approved over the summer.
“Region-wide, I’m disappointed that we’re not returning faster,” Lateef said. He said he wants to see pre-kindergarten through middle school back before Christmas and high schoolers return for the second semester in January.
Coles District School Board member Lisa Zarpargur said she realizes there’s no perfect answer on how to mitigate risks and meet the needs of all families, but she, too, wants to see a more concrete plan from Walts.
“Though the logistics of managing a 50% model are complicated, we need a comprehensive plan on how to accomplish this,” she said. “Though I wasn’t sure if all cohorts K-12 would be feasible before the [winter] break, I was disappointed that no plan was offered to include middle or high school.”
Zarpargur said she would like the school board to ask for a plan with “indicators and benchmarks for opening and for a timeline for getting our middle and high school students back into the schools sooner rather than later.”