Cars in a caravan of teachers protesting back to school plans outside the Prince William County School Board meeting. Published with permission of the photographer.

We suppose it was to be expected. This is 2020, after all.

When the coronavirus pandemic started in March, it seemed, for a fleeting moment, like one of those events that would bring us together as a country, just as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did 19 years ago.

Sadly, as we now know, that has not been the case. The initial rallying around front-line workers and the “we’re all in this together” attitude wore off quickly. COVID-19 became just another political issue, exacerbating our country’s divisions. The fights over issues such as whether COVID is really serious, who’s to blame for its spread, and whether we should wear masks have been disheartening.

The latest topic to be thrown into that cauldron is when and whether our public schools should re-open for in-person learning. There can be no doubt that Prince William County and other area school systems have adapted well to virtual learning – from all indications, this fall is going much more smoothly than the spring. There have been few technological glitches, and students are receiving new instruction and being held accountable.

On the other hand, there also can be no doubt that remote learning cannot fully replace in-person classes. The interactions simply aren’t the same. The relationships between student and teacher can’t develop as strongly. And students are missing out on many of the experiences that make growing up both challenging and fun. (Oh, and how the heck does someone learn welding or firefighting over Zoom?)

As Prince William County navigates the transition from all remote learning to a “hybrid” model, though, the school system’s start-and-stop approach and failure to communicate openly along the way has served only to harden the political lines. Initially, the school system indicated it was working toward a hybrid reopening in September and asked parents and students to choose whether they wanted to attend some classes in person.

Then, just a few weeks before school opened, the hybrid model was delayed until November. As recently as late September, School Board Chair Babur Lateef indicated the November date was still a go.

But last Wednesday night, in a meeting that dragged on until 1 a.m., Superintendent Steve Walts outlined a plan that would bring back only a small number of students (pre-kindergartners and kindergartners) in November and stagger the return of remaining elementary school students through December and into late January. Middle and high school students presumably would follow.

Maybe this plan makes sense; maybe it doesn’t. But the school system’s lack of communication about what it was thinking and refusal to include the community in the process created a void. Into that void stepped the Prince William Education Association, the teachers union, which issued statements and organized parades and protests against a return to in-person classes. On the other side emerged a Facebook group of parents and students who support a return to school.

Predictably, each side printed t-shirts, which they wore to the School Board meeting last Wednesday to display their opposition (red) or support (green) for reopening schools.

When and whether to reopen schools should not be a political issue. It should not be decided by which side can print more t-shirts. It should be decided by weighing the current health data against the needs and rights of students for a quality education delivered in an equitable manner. It should take into account the school system’s ability to implement and enforce appropriate safety guidelines and to clearly communicate about and effectively handle any issues that arise, such as cases of the virus.

But by keeping their plans and thoughts and ideas so private until it’s too late for anyone to do anything about them, Walts and other school officials have done nothing more than stir the cauldron. It’s not too late to turn down the heat; we encourage Walts and the School Board to involve the stakeholders in the process and to communicate plans and ideas before it’s too late to change them. Prince William teachers, parents and students deserve nothing less.

(1) comment


PWCS decided on the November 10th start date well before the Virginia Department of Health warned that PWC is high risk for widespread school transmission this fall and winter.

The target start date was always subject to change based on virus metrics, and the school board 100% deferred to Walts' judgment on where we stand with reopening. So the board being all outraged and some parents acting like the victims of some sort of bait-and-switch is a bit ridiculous.

Nobody wanted the responsibility of making this decision. But of course, when a decision based on reason and compromise is made, everyone crawls out of the woodwork to complain about it.

A staggered return is a reasonable approach, knowing what we do about the CDC's and VDOH's projections for this fall and coming winter. The 50/50 plan for return was the unreasonable one: 50% of my kid's high school is roughly 1,200 to 1,500 kids. A slower, more deliberate return averts the disaster some in PWC seem bound and determined to make happen for reasons I struggle to understand. (Reasons other than all that sweet, sweet free babysitting, that is ...)

No matter what approach to returning any county or state takes, the fact of the matter is that schools across the country are going to be forced to close down again. Because America is about to get very, very sick again and a whole bunch more people are going to die.

I don't blame teachers for refusing to risk their lives to appease the willful ignorance and foolishness of others.

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