On July 15th, the Prince William County School Board voted on the division’s plan for reopening this fall. This comes after weeks of input and discussion with administrators, parents, teachers, other jurisdictions, our partners in the state and federal government and with myself and my colleagues on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. The School Board’s ultimate decision: re-open with 100% virtual instruction for the first quarter, and to reassess with an eye on reaching 50/50 hybrid in-person and virtual instruction in a phased manner starting the following quarter.
We asked the School Board to do the unimaginable. I believe they came to the best decision they could given current circumstances, and I don’t envy their position.
The safety and wellbeing of our residents and public workforce are top priorities; that means taking all the proper precautions to ensure that educators, bus drivers, administrators and all other support staff are properly protected from possible infection. Educators did not sign up to put their lives, or that of their families, at risk every single time they enter a school building.
It also, of course, means precautions to keep our 90,000+ student population safe. Many of those children are safest in school. For some school-aged children in our community, school is their only sanctuary from a turbulent home life. For some, the food and health programs provided by the school division are the only thing keeping them from crisis. At-risk students did not sign up to have their one refuge ripped away from them because of a pandemic.
Finally - It also, unfortunately, means the financial safety and wellbeing of many of our county’s working families. Our school community is being asked to be a key linchpin in allowing parents to go back to work. Many families do not have the expendable income - especially right now - to pay for private school or child care when classrooms close. Most parents are not licensed educators, and often do not have the time or the means to assist their children with virtual learning during the day.
These are the competing concerns and needs we are currently laying at the feet of our schools. All with a shortfall of funding to do so.
Despite operational savings from schools being closed for a substantial portion of this year’s spring semester, the division still had to absorb a shortfall in their budget as a result of losses in revenues from both the county and the state. For our part on the Board of Supervisors, we could not live up to the ambitious budget originally presented to us by the School Board due to the fiscal realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the federal, state and local level, we have begun to step up to assist the school division in meeting this moment. Through the CARES Act passed by Congress earlier in the year, $9,250,965.99 was allocated to PWCS, and the Virginia Department of Education has used other funding from the CARES Act to expand Virtual Virginia and other online learning programs and to provide targeted grants to school divisions with high populations of at-risk students.
The General Assembly is now set to reconvene for a special session on Aug. 18. At that time, they will be discussing various budgetary changes in light of COVID-19, and support for local school divisions will be part of that conversation. Locally, we have already taken the following actions:
During the County’s joint meeting with the School Board last month, I issued a directive supported by my colleagues for the county to make bulk orders of PPE, cleaning supplies, and sanitizer in partnership with the school division. As of the date of writing this, the school division has utilized county point of sale vendors to secure supplies at better rates.
The county has also provided masks and other PPE to the school division as they have requested it, and the offer to supply these items freely remains open to the school division at their request.
I have worked with Coles School Board Member Lisa Zargarpur to connect the PWCS Transportation Department with PRTC-Omniride. PRTC has been doing an excellent job keeping buses clean and both passengers and operators safe. Best practices and technical support are being shared as modified busing is included in at least two of the reopening plans.
In partnership with School Board Vice Chair Loree Williams, we drafted a letter signed by the entirety of both the Board of Supervisors and the School Board requesting that our Richmond delegation advocate for an additional $41 million in CARES Act funding currently held by the state. Recent comments by Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne has signaled that at least a portion of this additional funding may be allocated to the county.
I have reached out to our IT department, which is in the process of donating surplus devices for use by PWCS, and is looking into the potential of bulk orders jointly made when new systems need to be purchased.
County staff is coordinating with the school division for a plan on securing child care solutions for wide swaths of our community. While still in the brainstorm phase, this plan includes contracting with existing childcare providers to meet the expanded need. I have been in touch with school board members and our staff about the potential of also utilizing county-owned spaces for these purposes.
While we seek to be proactive, in my discussions with teachers, parents and my colleagues on both boards, we all know that there is much more to be done to facilitate a safe and responsible re-opening of our schools. I am committed to working with my colleagues at all levels to provide additional resources to PWCS, and encourage all community members to help us advocate for those resources that will let us open schools in a manner that is safe for all.
Kenny Boddye is the supervisor for the Occoquan District on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.