Dr. Steve Walts, Superintendent of Schools, Head shot


  1. Good evening, as you know, in July the School Board unanimously directed that, and I quote - "it is the goal of the division to transition to a 50 percent Capacity In-Person and Distance Learning Model for the second quarter, with the option for students to remain virtual, while maintaining flexibility throughout to adapt to public health guidelines as needed, and (2) to adopt the proposed Return to Work and Health Plans, modified as needed to adapt to the Return to Learning Plan and public health guidelines, and (3) to authorize the Superintendent to implement any additional mitigation measures as appropriate to accommodate these models."
  2. As such, I, along with our entire staff, have been working hard to ensure we are fully prepared to implement the 50 percent model in the second quarter, with the "flexibility to adapt to public health guidelines as needed."
  3. In the past week, the Virginia Department Health (VDH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Prince William Health District released new public health guidelines and a dashboard that directly inform my recommendations to the School Board for a "transition to a 50 percent capacity."
  4. As such, I have asked Prince William Health District Director Dr. Alison Ansher, Associate Superintendent Denise Huebner, and Supervisor of Student Health Services Teresa Polk, to address this latest guidance, and to share with the School Board and public the implications of the latest data. (See Pandemic Health Data (PDF).
  5. As was noted in the data shared this, we fall within the "Moderate or High Risk" category as defined by the Virginia Department of Health.
  6. At this level, per the VDH, "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 prekindergarten through third grade students. All other students should be served remotely. A fully remote option should be available to all."
  7. There are also a number of additional operational considerations as well.
  8. First, in a reverse of the selections made in July, a majority of students now have a virtual-only preference. Based on the most recent ParentVUE data as of this morning, more than 47,000 students have virtual-only as their preference, in July this number was approximately 32,000.
  9. This is an increase of more than 46 percent selecting virtual-only from July. I believe this increase is due, in-part, to the highly successful virtual experience for many families. About 37,000 students have their preference listed as in-person.
  10. Approximately 95 percent of students have a preference selected, and those students who do not have a preference indicated will be considered as in-person for planning purposes until otherwise indicated and schools will continue to provide outreach to those who did not make a selection.
  11. Second, it is very important that we have consistent expectations regarding which roles in the organization can be granted a virtual assignment as a "reasonable accommodation" to ensure equity and fairness, and to best serve the needs of our students in the Return to Learn 50/50 instructional model.
  12. We have approximately 500 Tier 1 teachers in the division who have documented underlying health conditions that could place them at higher risk of serious illness should they contract COVID-19. In order to properly staff our schools in-person, especially at the high school level, we may need to consider allowing Tier 1 staff to work from home and "remote-into" in-person classrooms via Zoom.
  13. However, allowing high school teachers to do so may create questions of fairness, if we do not allow all 500 qualifying teachers to do so. Allowing all qualified teachers to do-so may require hiring large numbers of long-term substitutes and create a challenging precedent long-term.
  14. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the employer and the employee to engage in the interactive process to discuss possible accommodations for our Tier 1 staff, these conversations have been ongoing.
  15. Third, moving students and staff to the hybrid model without adequate time to develop the unique skills and lesson planning necessary may disrupt the successful virtual-only model that is currently in effect.
  16. A phased approach would provide more time for teachers to be trained in a hybrid model and to practice prior to a full deployment of the 50 percent model.
  17. It is important to note that this approach to live hybrid instruction is a new development only recently made possible by the investments of the school division and Board of County Supervisors in the network and classroom technology.
  18. Fourth, implementing the 50 percent model is an extreme logistics challenge for our schools that is greatly reduced if we start with a prekindergarten through third grade phase-in. Retaining the current virtual model for high school students in the second quarter will permit the later start time for high school to continue until we bring in grades beyond prekindergarten through third grade.
  19. Additionally, maintaining the current schedule during November, which has many scheduled non-school days, allows a more continued focus on teaching and learning versus implementing in-school logistics at a period of heightened health risk concerns.
  20. Fifth, our IT staff have been working hard to ensure the network and technology is ready for a November implementation of the 50 percent model, including working every Sunday throughout October.
  21. However, additional time to phase-in the 50 percent model will provide additional opportunity to implement the Digital Equity Plan with a laptop for every student by the end of January. This will also allow further build-out of redundancy within the network for 100G.
  22. Sixth, due to capacity needs, six feet of social distance may not always be possible, and as such, students and staff may need to wear face coverings for the majority of the day. This will vary by school and class, depending on the number of in-person students.
  23. As long as our schools are in the moderate to high risk category, the Phase II recommendation also limits groups to less than 50 in a space. The Health District has expressed concern about anything less than six feet being maintained.
  24. An additional health consideration is that students will not have access to water fountains during the day. While schools will have bottle filling stations, they are very limited in number within each school. We are continuing with new installations. Currently we have an average of two at elementary and middle schools and three at high school.
  25. New guidance was also released just this week by the CDC regarding the transmission of COVID-19.
  26. As such, based on this guidance and operational considerations, I recommend a transition to a 50 percent capacity that focuses on returning prekindergarten through third grade in a phased approach during the second quarter, along with a continued in-person instruction for our most vulnerable learners.
  27. This will start with prekindergarten and kindergarten, followed by subsequent grades in a phased-in approach.
  28. Based on the recommendation of Doug Wright, supervisor of Career and Technical Education, our High school Career and Technical Education also known as CTE, will be phased-in for in-person instruction in three phases to allow students to begin participating in the hands-on/lab portions of the courses for three hours on Mondays. This will supplement the "book" study that was intentionally planned for the first part of the school year.
  29. The three-hour times slots will be 8:30-11:30 a.m. and 12:30-3:30 p.m.
  30. Transportation will be provided as needed and details will be provided closer to the start.
  31. I have some slides to illustrate the phase-in (See Return to Learning (PDF))
  32. In November, the first week is focused on the election followed by cleaning our schools, and providing teacher workdays that will enable those teachers starting in-person the following week time to prepare their classrooms.
  33. All students attending four days a week currently in the first quarter will continue to do so in the second.
  34. Prekindergarten and kindergarten will begin November 10 with "House A" students. "House B" students would begin November 13.
  35. Remember the House is due to the 50 percent model - as such we group in-person students into "Houses" split about in-half. Houses alternate days, per health department suggestion, in order to allow time to monitor students who attend in-person and may develop COVID-19 symptoms, or should exposure occur can be quarantined via contact tracing.
  36. This start for our youngest learners allows them time to adjust to learn school norms and the health protocols.
  37. For all other grades, we will remain the same as first quarter, including the later high school start time.
  38. For many students this will be their first time in a school building and riding a bus. Starting these students first will provide the opportunity for additional staff to ride the bus and help in classrooms until they can adjust to their new routines.
  39. We also know our youngest learners benefit from having the ability to have a tactile, in-person learning experience.
  40. For CTE, beginning November 16, the first phase will include select upper level trade and industry courses to include Auto Tech III, Welding III, Firefighting, Television Production III, Landscaping II, and Turfgrass Maintenance III.
  41. Moving beyond the Thanksgiving Break into December, we will add in first grade with our prekindergarten, kindergarten, and current four-day-a-week students.
  42. Beginning December 7, the second phase will include Building Trades II, Culinary II, Cosmetology II, Cabinet Making II, Advanced Cyber Security Systems, Plumbing II, and Electricity II.
  43. Moving to January, we will add second and third grade in-person starting January 12 and 13.
  44. Beyond these groups, I recommend we continue to monitor the health metrics, with a target to return, but not a guarantee, remaining grade levels starting in the second semester via a phased approach, should the health metrics fall within "Lowest or Lower Risk" category as defined by the VDH and CDC metrics discussed above.
  45. In addition, the next phase of CTE in-person is targeted to begin when the division moves to the implementation of a full 50 percent model and will encompass the remaining high school CTE courses which will be in person at that time.
  46. Finally, I want to highlight just a few key operational dates to illustrate the critical deadlines we must meet to successfully implement the plan for the second quarter. It is imperative that our school leaders and families have definitive direction, as soon as possible, in order to plan accordingly.
  47. My recommendation to implement prekindergarten through third grade in a phased approach in the second quarter comes only after great care and thought being given the health and wellbeing of all students, teachers, and staff.
  48. These are not easy decisions, but ultimately, I believe that Dr. Anthony Fauci is correct when he said, "Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another."
  49. I believe this approach provides the best opportunity for continued success for our students and staff, and ensures compliance with official health guidance in order to lower the COVID-19 health risk for everyone and keep safety as our top priority.
  50. Ultimately, our employees stand-ready to implement whatever direction we provide and I have no doubt will give it their all to make it as successful and as safe as possible.
  51. I thank the School Board, our employees, our parents and guardians, and our students for your partnership as we work together to do our best to deliver a safe and World-Class Education for our students.

Watch the October 7, 2020 School Board Meeting