School leaders are hopeful they can get more children back into classrooms by March.
During an emergency meeting Tuesday, the Prince William County School Board voted to overturn Superintendent Steven L. Walts’ plan that would have delayed the return of students’ in the fourth through 12th grades until after spring break in late April.
When it was announced on January 6, Walts’ plan stunned parents and students hoping to return to the classroom at 50 percent capacity starting on February 2, the goal since October.
In a 5-3 vote, the School Board now aims to get those students back to class in early March, following an update from school staff on February 17, outlining its efforts to give its teachers the coronavirus vaccine. It now appears that the more teachers that receive the coronavirus vaccination, the better the chances students will make an early March return.
Walts’ original plan to return 4th through 12th-grade students had little to do with vaccines and hinged more with social distancing and small class sizes. Second and third-grade students are returning to a classroom this week for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Dr. Babur Lateef, the At-large School Board Chairman, introduced the 11th-hour plan to get students in sooner. It forces Walts and his staff to keep moving in the direction of opening all schools sooner than later.
The plan won a majority vote with five fellow School Board members, including Jennifer Wall, Justin Wilk, Diane Raulston, and Lisa Zargarpur, supporting the measure.
“There isn’t any good hope with that plan,” said Wall of Walts’ effort to return students to class following spring break. “We’re a year into the effect on students’ lives, and at this point, hope is valuable. When you have a deadline, you work hard. When a deadline is achievable, you don’t give up.”
The compromise is a victory for Lateef, who has been adamant since the fall about returning students to classrooms.
Meanwhile, Dr. Alison Ansher, the director of the Prince William Health District, the Virginia Department of Health’s local office, said Tuesday that public and private school teachers in Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park would begin receiving their vaccines starting January 30 from Inova Fairfax Hospital. A successful vaccination requires two injections, which all teachers could obtain by the end of March.
Given the option to go back in-person or stay at home, most county school students have opted to continue taking virtually. Despite this, Walts objected to the push to return students by early March, saying it will only create more anxiety among parents and children.
“If by a miracle we can get enough vaccinations by then…20 million people were going to have been vaccinated by the end of December. We’re at six [million] now,” said Walts, who reminded the School Board that a single teacher has yet to be vaccinated. “I’m all for giving out hope, but not false hope.”
Vaccinations have been slow to roll out in Virginia, and School division officials were adamant that they are at the mercy of the state health department regarding when and where it can vaccinate its teachers and staff. In Fairfax County, public school teachers are already receiving their vaccinations, putting pressure on Walts and his team to step up their efforts.
“Are we going to sit and accept what they tell us, or are we going to step up and do something?” asked Lateef.
Lateef urged the school division to begin working with local hospitals Sentara Healthcare in Woodbridge and Novant/UVA Health in Manassas and Haymarket, where senior school division official Matthew Guilfoyle serves on the Board of Directors, to distribute vaccines to teachers faster.
He’s pushing Walts to organize evening and weekend vaccination clinics at schools and the school administration Kelly Leadership Center, all to get teachers back in classrooms sooner.
“We stand ready,” said Denise Huebner, an associate superintendent who has been working on the school division’s coronavirus response team.
A total of 89,000 students are currently enrolled in Prince William County Public Schools, dropping 3,000 students since the pandemic began. The school division employs about 12,000 people, nearly 6,400 of whom are teachers.