WOODBRIDGE, Va. — The second-largest school district in Virginia will welcome back more of its students for in-person learning this week.
Roughly 3,400 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students will begin hybrid- model learning in Prince William County Public Schools [PWCS] Tuesday, according to PWCS Communications Services Director Diana Gulotta.
About 1,200 students with special needs have been learning in-person at PWCS, in some capacity, since the beginning of the school year.
Gulotta said PWCS parents had the option to choose whether their children would participate in in-person learning earlier this year.
Most students will attend classes in person two days a week. They will notice many changes in their school buildings. Stickers and blue tape will spot the floors denoting where students can stand for safe distancing, says Gulotta. Many school desks will also have plastic dividers to prevent the spread of coronavirus droplets.
“We've covered all the water fountains and we are offering water bottle stations so that if a student needs to drink, he or she won't be up there at the water fountain sharing with other students,” Gulotta said.
Frequent handwashing and mask wearing will be enforced as well.
“We’re following all of the mitigation strategies,” Gulotta said. “We can keep students and staff safe and that's what we're really striving to do.”
PWCS is implementing its phased-in approach for hybrid learning at a time when the coronavirus is surging in Virginia and the rest of the country.
Currently, the COVID-19 positivity rate is 6.1%, in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Prince William County has a positivity rate of 7.8%, as of Nov. 9.
Some local schools in the Washington region have already made the decision to temporarily halt their in-person learning model.
St. Mary’s County Public Schools canceled all in-person learning for the week of November 9 due to a rising coronavirus case count in that Maryland county.
Gulotta said PWCS has been in frequent consultation with its local county health leaders and state health metrics to help it reopen safely.
The Virginia Department of Health released guidance to schools in the Commonwealth as to how they should approach reopening.
“In schools with moderate or higher risk of transmission, specific learners should be prioritized for limited in-person instruction, including willing students with disabilities, English learners, and PreK -third grade students,” the state’s guidance reads.
Gulotta said PWCS will adjust accordingly in the future depending upon the health data that is provided to the school district.
“Of course, everything is contingent upon what those [coronavirus] numbers are looking like,” Gulotta said. “And, we do recognize that some of those cases have been increasing, but we'll continue to look at that. If we need to adjust and go back to all virtual learning, we can certainly do that. But we feel like, right now, with this phased-in approach, that helps us really bring back smaller numbers [of students], which helps us to stay in a better position to be socially distanced.”
She said, right now, PWCS expects to have roughly a maximum of 50 students in each of its elementary schools.
Gulotta added PWCS is also working with teachers individually to best accommodate their needs if they desire to continue their work virtually.
“Right now, with the smaller numbers of students coming back, we're not seeing any huge issues with the staffing,” she said. “But we do anticipate, and we've said publicly before, that as we start bringing back larger numbers of students, that that might create some obstacles for us where staff is concerned, especially if they have a health issue that will prevent them from returning.”
PWCS says students in the Juvenile Detention Center will resume in-person learning on Nov. 10 as well. The school district says students in some high school career and technical education classes will return to in-person learning on Mondays starting November 16.
Hybrid in-person learning is slated to begin for PWCS first graders on Dec.1. Students in higher grades will be able to learn in-person at varying times next semester.