This is Carter Lyra’s senior year at Woodbridge Senior High School.
So far, the 17-year-old, who lives in Lake Ridge, has spent it sitting at home, behind a laptop, attending virtual classes. He says his teachers are “struggling to make a connection” with students. The virtual classes educate him “no better than that what Google can provide me,” he said.
Kindergarten and first-grade students have returned to in-person learning at Prince William schools at a 50% capacity as of December 2. Half of the students sit with a teacher inside a classroom, and the other half use a laptop to attend class from home.
Second and third-grade students aren’t due back to an in-person classroom until January 12, 2021. Middle and high school students won’t be able to walk through the door of a school building until February 2.
Keeping students from in-person learning has put a damper on Lyra’s adolescence. He’s isolated from his friends and finding it nearly impossible to meet new ones. He’s also unable to get a date, which is clearly at the forefront of the young man’s mind.
He believes the School Board’s decision to keep students out of the classroom has become less about protecting students from a deadly virus and is now more politically motivated. “COVID-19 is out of your hands, but you have created this situation,” said Lyra as he scolded the Prince William County School Board at its meeting on Wednesday, December 3. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
At-large School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, Jennifer Wall, and Justin Wilk, who represent the Gainesville and Potomac magisterial districts, respectively, have been vocal about their desire to see children return to in-person learning.
A vocal minority of School Board members, to include Lorree Williams, Lillie Jessie, and Daine Raulston, of the Woodbridge, Occoquan, and Neabsco magisterial districts — all of whom have been endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party — do not.
In neighboring Fairfax County, the largest school district in the state, reports that online learning has been such a disaster that theres an 83% failure rate in the student population.
Return to in-person learning will continue
While Lyra may have to wait another 60 days to see most of his friends again, School Superintendent Dr. Steven L. Walts says he’ll move ahead with his plan to return students to the classroom in a 50% capacity model. While all students will continue to learn from home on Mondays, students will alternate during the remainder of the week, with half of the students coming to school while the other half learn from home.
“At this time, I am not recommending any changes to our operations, which is due in large part to the limited numbers of students we have in the building currently coupled with our extensive mitigation efforts. This includes winter sports at the high school level, which will continue as planned with additional mitigation requirements,” Walts said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Newly installed plexiglass now separates children from others as they sit at their classroom desks. They, like their teachers, are forced to wear facemasks. And, like pencils and paper, hand sanitizer is now atop the list of must-have school supplies.
All of this is happening when the number of coronavirus cases reported within the school division is on the rise.
“Since the last School Board meeting, we have had 69 cases of COVID-19 of either students or staff virtual or in-person, reported to [Prince William County Public Schools] for November 15 — November 21, and 39 cases reported November 22-29. This brings the total for November to 177 cases as of Monday, November 30, compared to 84 in October, and 50 in September,” Walts penned in his remarks to the School Board.
However, very few people in Prince William County — 0.7% out of every 100,000 — have been hospitalized with the disease over the past seven days. Statewide, there have been no reported coronavirus-related deaths of small children since the pandemic began in March and only one death of a person between the ages of 10 and 19.
But, as the number of coronavirus cases rises, so does the anxiety of some parents. “In March, we were pulling children out of a house fire [when schools were ordered to close], and we’re sending them back when the fire is raging,” said one parent, who phoned into the School Board meeting.
Instructors are scared, too. “Teachers can’t get what they need [personal protective equipment], and when students test positive coronavirus, their teachers aren’t told about it. Many hear about it from other students,” one teacher told the school board over the phone.
But others, like Ashland Elementary School School Principal Dr. Andy Jacks, negated her claim and assured elected leaders that teachers were, in fact, receiving protective gear. “Feeling safe is important, and if anyone feels like they need more [personal protective gear], all they have to do is ask for it,” said Jacks.
Superintendent Walts, who also continues to phone into School Board meetings since online classes resumed in August, suggested that individual School Board members who have concerns about teacher safety bring them to his subordinates to have them addressed, occurring out of public view.
Elected official singles out reporter over facemask
When it comes to wearing personal protective gear at the county school headquarters, it appears the School Board is selectively enforcing who has to wear a facemask and who doesn’t.
During Wednesday’s meeting, this reporter was one of 11 people sitting in the large meeting room, in one of 22 chairs, all of which had been set six feet apart.
Admittedly, I was one of two people in the room who didn’t have their faces completely covered by a mask. My mask was resting on my chin while a man two rows in front of me, sitting closer to the School Board members, was not wearing a mask.
About an hour into the meeting, Vice-Chairwoman Lorree Williams, who was presiding over the meeting and represents the Woodbridge Magisterial District, stormed off the dais and approached a man who later identified himself as the director of security at the school division, and whispered into his ear.
Shortly thereafter, the security guard approached me and demanded that this reporter pull up his facemask while saying nothing to the man in front of me. When I refused and pointed out the hypocrisy of the order, the security director summoned a police officer who asked me to step out of the meeting.
Now in the lobby with the officer and the security guard, fully masked due to us standing less than six-feet apart, the security guard demanded I use the mask to cover my entire face due to an executive order put in place by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam that requires reaffirms facemasks to be worn indoors, and now requires children five years or older to shield their faces from public view.
He declined to allow me to sit in the back of the large meeting room, well away from the meeting attendees, at more than a six-foot distance, to observe the meeting.
Pivoting, he then offered me the option of sitting in the lobby, without a facemask, and viewing the meeting on a TV screen. In the end, and despite a clear effort by an elected official to single out a member of the press, this reporter complied with the police officer who asked that I wear the mask for the remainder of the meeting.
This incident marks the first time in this reporter’s 20-year career a that politician has used force during a public meeting to intimidate the press.
No law in Virginia grants School Boards the authority to require meeting attendees to wear masks. When challenged, similar executive orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic by governors in New York and Michigan have been found to have violated citizens’ First Amendment Rights and are now deemed unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, the Campbell County, Virginia Board of Supervisors declared that county a First Amendment Sanctuary, vowing not to enforce any new coronavirus restrictions by Governor Northam.