Jayden Seay, a senior at C.D. Hylton Senior High School, does not plan to return to in-person learning when it resumes for his grade next week. 

“When I went to Beville Middle School, toward the end of the year we would run out of soap, paper towels, and toilet paper,” Seay said. “I don’t feel that the school will keep me safe from coronavirus.”

Seay’s concern is apparently shared by about 60% of other Prince William County Public School students, who will continue with remote learning even after the School Board approved a plan to resume the return to in-person instruction starting Thursday. 

At nearly 2 a.m. on Feb. 18, following a nearly seven-hour meeting, the board voted 5-3 to reopen classrooms to fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and ninth-graders this Thursday and Friday and to the remaining middle and high school students next Tuesday and Wednesday, March 2 and 3. 

With its vote, the board rejected a plan from Superintendent Steve Walts that would have delayed the return of additional students until later in March, with more of a gap between the two groups. 

Although the county has put in a variety of protections against the spread of COVID-19, and will follow masking and social distancing requirements, for some people, it is just not enough. 

Since the beginning of February, there have been 239 coronavirus cases among students, teachers and staff in Prince William County Schools, following 899 cases in January, according to the school system’s dashboard.  Although only a handful of those cases are associated with outbreaks involving transmission of the virus at the schools, parents, as well as students, are concerned about the possibilities. 

“I don’t feel that anything has really gotten better with COVID,” said Rebekah Plummer, the mother of a Potomac High School freshman who will not be attending school in-person. “Every week I’m getting emails about a COVID outbreak [at a Prince William County School.] I’m getting emails even from Potomac High School. So I think that it’s just gonna be kind of a disaster.”

While safety concerns are a barrier to returning to school in-person for some parents and students, others are more confident in the health protocols. However, that is not the only reason some are choosing to return. 

“I believe my oldest is struggling the most,” said Victoria King, the mother of students at Nokesville Middle School and Brentsville High School. “He’s come and said, ‘I’m really struggling, I can’t focus enough virtually.’”

King said her younger son is doing better, but his grades have suffered. “He was a straight-A student, and now he’s more of a B/C student.”

The school system reported that middle and high schoolers’ grades in the second quarter, which ended in late January, show “a higher proportion of students failing two or more classes than in the first quarter.” 

At the middle school level, 17.9% of students failed two or more classes in the second quarter, while the high school percentage was not specified. The report indicated, however, that although more high school students failed two or more classes in the second quarter compared with the first, the increase was “no worse than in a ‘typical’  year.”

But students say they are also struggling with the isolation of virtual learning. 

“It’s not been good as far as the isolation of not being able to be at school and see their peers and have the interaction with their teachers,” said Rachel Freeman, the mother of four Prince William students who will be returning in-person. 

County schools also switched this week to a new bell schedule. High school students are now starting school between 7:25 and 7:30 a.m., depending on the school, middle schoolers between 8:10 and 8:20 a.m., and elementary pupils between 8:05 and 9:20 a.m.  

“I think the new schedule is going to help students become more engaged,” said Giselle Posey-Geriz, a senior at Colgan High School. “This is a schedule students are familiar with so it might help with better time management skills and organization.”

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