Three school systems in Virginia announced Friday afternoon they will remain closed for nearly a month, with tentative plans to reopen after spring break in mid-April — the latest escalation in coronavirus-fueled school closures throughout the Washington region.
Arlington Public Schools and Falls Church City Public Schools will shutter on Monday and stay closed through April 14. Alexandria City Public Schools will close from Monday through April 13. The flurry of shutdowns comes after the District and Maryland opted to close their public schools this week, and leaves Fairfax County Public Schools — which serves 188,000 students in Northern Virginia — as one of the only major Washington area systems still open.
In public statements and messages to parents, superintendents of all three districts — none of which have seen a confirmed case of the coronavirus — pointed to building public concern over the pandemic.
The closure in Arlington, which serves about 28,000 students, comes “in response to growing concerns and anxiety in our community about the coronavirus,” Arlington interim superintendent Cintia Johnson wrote in a message to families. “We believe this is the best decision to make at this time.”
In an email to families Friday, Alexandria superintendent Gregory Hutchings wrote he had been flooded with calls from worried parents and staff in recent days.
Hutchings had insisted in two videotaped question-and-answer sessions over the past week that he would not close school until asked to do so by the Alexandria Health Department. But the evolving situation — especially the fact that roughly a dozen school staffers and students began self-quarantining this week after coming into contact with coronavirus patients — forced him to act, he wrote.
“Multiple issues are impacting the ability for our schools to function effectively and efficiently,” he wrote of his district, which enrolls roughly 16,000 students. “The mental, physical and emotional health of our students is at the forefront of our decision-making.”
Johnson said officials would evaluate and monitor the situation daily and provide updates to families in the system. Her message was co-signed by Peter Noonan, superintendent of Falls Church schools, which serves 2,700 students. Johnson and Noonan promised to send “additional logistical details of the closure” later in the day.
In Alexandria, officials had made a bit more headway in preparations, and authorities are finalizing a strategy to feed students who rely on free and reduced meal programs during the closure, Hutchings wrote. He said he would send more details on plans in the next few hours.
The school had already begun girding for online learning: On Friday morning, educators distributed hastily assembled “distance learning” packets to 9,000 middle-schoolers throughout the system. The eight-page documents include educational activities — for example, measuring a child’s shadow at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m. — as well as arts and crafts projects. They also offer physical exercises such as jumping jacks or dancing to classical music while learning about famous composers.
The packets, which give students something to do each day, are designed to carry children through roughly two weeks without school. At Hutchings’s request, Alexandria employees worked long hours starting Monday — in some cases pulling all-nighters — to finalize them by Thursday morning.
“It was 24/7,” said Tanja Mayer-Harding, a humanities instructor who helped compile the packets. “We put in as much work as we possibly, possibly could.”
For students in third grade and older, all of whom receive Chromebooks from the school system, the packets will be supplemented by online programming, Mayer-Harding said. School officials have also developed special versions of its packets for pre-kindergarteners, students with learning disabilities and students with a minimal grasp of English.