Prince William County School Board Chair Dr. Babur Lateef and I discussed the school system’s response to COVID-19 over tea and chocolate chip cookies in his backyard.
Lateef is an ophthalmologist. He asked if I had cataract surgery. When I replied yes, he shared this story. During World War II, a doctor noticed that acrylic splinters from aircraft canopies that lodged in the eyes of wounded pilots were not rejected. That led to the invention of the acrylic intraocular lens implant -- and a treatment for cataracts. It was an example of how war leads to discovery and often contributes to advancements in several areas.
COVID-19 hit the U.S. education system like a war. It was unexpected and required educators, parents, and those who govern to rise to the occasion, fight the war and win. The fight required quick adaptation, innovation, creative thinking and cooperation. Such is the story of the school system’s response to this “surprise attack.” Lateef is interested in capturing the new ideas, best practices and innovations that will become evident as this process continues to unfold.
Lateef gave county school superintendent Steve Walts credit for leading the school system’s response. He mentioned that Prince William was the first jurisdiction to offer special education in-person classes in Northern Virginia.
Lateef said Walts is engaging with other superintendents across the region to share and exchange successes, best practices and ideas. He said the education domain is going to learn some good things out of this experience.
According to Lateef, it wasn’t easy. “Teachers stepped up,” he said. “They did amazing work in an incredibly difficult time.”
Teachers learned new skills, developed strategies to deliver education, and adapted as the process unfolded. Considering that Prince William has the second largest school system in the state, serving almost 90,000 students, that was no easy task.
It takes a coalition to win a war. Lateef said Prince William’s success happened thanks to support from state and local officials. Lateef also noted the cooperation among his fellow School Board members. Everyone wants to get kids back in school.
The School Board unanimously adopted a Return to Learn Plan. The first quarter of the school year is underway now and is all-virtual learning for most students. The plan calls for a transition to a 50% capacity model in the second quarter, while providing an option for students to remain virtual. Everything depends on the status of COVID-19, public health guidance, and what phase the state’s reopening is in; however, the current target is to begin offering hybrid learning for all grade levels Nov. 10.
Teachers, parents, and students serve on the front lines of this metaphorical war. Drawing on the lessons encountered during the spring and after “shaking out the bugs,” all are better equipped for fall.
During our conversation, Lateef shared that he is considering a run for lieutenant governor; however, he understands that the success of county schools, teachers, staff, parents and students during these challenging times are his current priority. Everything else has to wait.
Lateef closed with a statement to the community: “I understand all the parents’ frustration with the school year beginning like it has. I recognize we had good success, and virtual school has limitations. We are working hard to get students back in person. We can do this as long as we all work together.”
If we all work together, we can win this war! For the record, the cookies were excellent.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.