The remainder of Prince William County’s public school children who haven’t set foot in a classroom in nearly a year may do so later this month.
In a 5-3 vote early this morning, the School Board affirmed its plan outlined on January 12 to return children in grades 4 through 12 to the classroom for the first time since March 12, 2020.
Students in grades 4, 5, and 6 will return on February 25 and 26, in alternating groups, four days a week. Students in grades 7 through 12 will return on March 2 and 3 and will also attend in-person classes four days a week.
Students will continue to learn virtually from home on Mondays. Students in pre-kindergarten through third grade began returning to classrooms in early December.
About 30% of school children have opted to return to in-person learning. Those who opted to continue learning remotely may switch to in-person learning. When they return to school, students will be required to wear face masks and stay at least six feet apart.
“I will not concede another day,” said School Board Chairman At-large Dr. Babur Lateef of his vote to return the remainder of students to the classroom. Lateef has long pushed to return children to school.
School Superintendent Steven L. Walts presented an 11-hour substitution to the plan, which would have had elementary students returning to class in March and high schoolers in early April following spring break.
“I don’t see a compelling reason to delay the return of in-person learning any longer,’ said Gainesville District School Board member Jennifer Wall. mid-March
School Board members Lillie Jessie, Loree Williams, and Adele Jackson voted against the plan, saying the school division needs more time to vaccinate teachers before students return to class.
“We say we’ve done a wonderful job [returning some children to the classroom]. We haven’t. We’ve put teachers at risk,” said Occoquan District School Bor member Lillie Jessie.
Teachers aren’t required by the school division or the CDC to get vaccinated before returning to the classroom. Some teachers who have already returned to the classroom did so before a vaccine had been made available, Lateef reminded the School Board.
The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases in Virginia has plummeted to the lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. The number of newly reported daily cases in the state had fallen on Tuesday, February 16 to 132, a number not seen in nearly a year.
The number of daily cases spiked at 2,224 on January 4, 2021. During the now year-long pandemic, the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations has remained low and continues to decline.
Prince William schools is considered to be at high risk of widespread transmission of the coronavirus. However, that hasn’t happened. Fewer than one percent of students and staff who have returned to the classroom since December have contracted coronavirus, and none have become seriously ill, school officials said Tuesday.
Walts maintains the ability to shudder close to individual schools in case of an outbreak or a spike in cases.
The School Board heard from a panel of school principals who provided feedback on the school system’s plan to return to in-person learning. Many say they are prepared for the return of students.
Those who have already returned to class have done so in cohorts or pods that stay together througout the school day. The structure has proven to be a useful measure in reducing the spread of the virus, they said.
However, school principals say they are clamoring to find more substitute teachers to fill the void left by full-time staff who opted not to return to the classroom or who cannot work.
“If someone calls in sick, I have only one substitute I can call,” said Woodbridge Senior High School Principal Heather Abney.
The school division has moved mountains in the past two weeks to administer the first round of coronavirus vaccinations to nearly 80% of its workforce–more than 11,000 employees.
“This is a truly remarkable accomplishment, especially because it’s been done during two-weekend snowstorms,” said Walts.
The school division partnered with Novant Health/UVA Health System to hold mass vaccination clinics at Unity Reed High School (formerly Stonewall Jackson Senior High School) near Manassas.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered school divisions across the state to devise a plan to get children in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade back into the classroom at least one day a week by March 15.
Ahead of the curve, Prince William has children back in class four days a week since December.