Prince William County students will not be back in the classroom when the school year begins Sept. 8.
In a vote late Wednesday night, the school board walked back its initial support for a "hybrid" model that would have allowed students to attend school twice a week, with 100% virtual learning as an option. A motion for the hybrid model failed on a 4-4 vote.
A compromise from board Chair Babur Lateef called for only virtual instruction for the first quarter, with plans for the "hybrid" model beginning in the second quarter. That was approved unanimously in a vote taken just before 2 a.m. Thursday.
The school division will provide some in-person instruction for students with special needs and some English language learners.
Some parents and elected leaders have called on schools to open to students — at times even demanding full-week instruction. But many teachers and staff who have spoken out have noted fears of outbreaks of COVID-19 and the risk of exposure with even limited in-person learning.
The decision from Prince William's school board came following a vote by the Manassas School Board on Tuesday to limit instruction to virtual learning for the start of the school year. Arlington County schools are also planning to begin the year with only online learning.
School board member Lillie Jessie, Occoquan, said offering all virtual instruction at the beginning of the year would give time for staff to prepare for in-person instruction with numerous new health guidelines.
Jessie said the hybrid schedule is a good idea, “but I think we need to take it slow and start with a virtual model.”
Adele Jackson of the Brentsville District, said she doesn’t think the school system's staff is ready to offer partial in-person instruction, noting schools are already underfunded and overcrowded. Jackson was a special education teacher for 14 years. She resigned in June 2019 to run for school board.
“Based on 14 years in the classroom, in the end I have to make a decision,” Jackson said. “I don't support the 50-50 [hybrid schedule] as of right now, but I support it in the long run.”
School Board member Loree Williams, Woodbridge, said during the meeting she doesn’t support the hybrid schedule.
“I’m not comfortable sending my child [to school] for various reasons, so I can’t ask anyone else,” Williams said.
Several school board members said they received almost-constant emails and feedback on plans for next year before the meeting Wednesday.
The motion for the hybrid model was supported by Lateef and board members Diane Raulston, Neabsco; Jennifer Wall, Gainesville; and Justin Wilk, Potomac. Voting against the plan was Jackson, Jessie, Williams and board member Lisa Zargarpur, Coles.
Earlier in the meeting, the school board heard from more than 35 people about the reopening plans for the school year. Some parents advocated for five days of in-person instruction that division staff said would not be feasible because of requirements to maintain physical distance. Other speakers, including parents and teachers, expressed concerns about students or staff getting sick with COVID-19.
Riley O’Casey, president of the Prince William Education Association, told the school board she has heard concerns from the association’s members and supports a fully remote schedule.
“They love their jobs and students, but they don’t want to lose their lives or their family members,” O’Casey said. “They are updating their wills. This is unacceptable.”
The plan for the upcoming school year will impact more than 91,500 students and 6,396 teachers in the division, according to the school division.