The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Snow, staffing shortages force closure of most Northern Virginia schools for an extra week

Northern Virginia was blanketed by two snowstorms this week, forcing the closure of most school systems. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Most Northern Virginia families celebrated the arrival of 2022 confident in the belief their children would soon return to school. They were in for a surprise.

School was supposed to start up Monday for the roughly 300,000 students that attend school in the Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Arlington and Alexandria City public school systems. But a surprisingly strong storm dumped about 12 inches of snow on some parts of the D.C. area early in the week, forcing all four school systems to shutter for the first two days. A second snowstorm arrived Thursday night, which — coupled with severe staffing shortages caused both by the weather and the ongoing pandemic — led to more closures.

Loudoun County Public Schools was the only system to offer any in-person learning this week, allowing children back in classrooms on Wednesday and Thursday before closing again on Friday. Alexandria City Public Schools was the only system to attempt virtual instruction, leading children in remote lessons on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before reverting to traditional, school-free snow days on Thursday and Friday. Arlington Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, meanwhile, offered no instruction of any kind all week.

Parents and educators throughout the region were divided over the merits of what effectively became a week-long extension of the holiday break. Some saw it as evidence of a glaring lack of initiative from school officials. Northern Virginia schools and state entities, they argued, should have done more to keep children learning — whether by better clearing the roads to facilitate in-person lessons or by offering virtual classes — during a pandemic in which many students have fallen behind academically.

But others were upset by Alexandria’s attempts to hold virtual learning, pointing out that power and Internet outages caused by the first snowstorm made online lessons difficult to access at times.

And still others were thrilled to see the return of in-person learning delayed by a full week, at a moment when the omicron variant of the coronavirus is tearing through the nation, and when many families are facing possible exposure and infection due to holiday travel.

“My daughter said that she’s had so much time off at this point that she’s kind of anxious to go back to normal school,” said Cindy Stickles, whose two children attend school in Alexandria. “That did sort of surprise me.”

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Stickles said she wishes her kids hadn’t been asked to participate in virtual schooling, which they found stressful — especially when the Internet in her house went out all-day Tuesday.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents 4,000 school employees, called the timing of the two snowstorms “beautiful.” Not only did it prevent the post-holiday spread of omicron in schools, she said, it allowed the large number of Fairfax staffers who were in quarantine, sick with the coronavirus, to recover.

“By this coming week, hopefully we’ll see staff who are recovered from covid returning to work and we won’t have the shortages we were anticipating,” Adams said.

Most Northern Virginia systems stayed closed for longer this week than did their counterparts in D.C. — which opened back up for a day of in-person learning on Thursday — and Maryland, whose Montgomery County Public Schools remained open Wednesday and Thursday. In Facebook groups, some parents speculated that the real reason behind the lengthy closures in Virginia was that school officials wished to prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus — which some may have contracted during holiday travels — without admitting that was what they were doing.

A state law passed over the summer requires all school districts in Virginia to offer in-person learning at all times through August 2022. The law does not allow school systems to shut down districtwide purely due to coronavirus health concerns, leaving Virginia systems with their hands tied — even as neighboring systems are shutting down for coronavirus concerns. In Maryland, for example, Prince George’s County Public Schools has reverted to online-only learning through Jan. 18.

“Probably their backhanded way of quarantine without actually saying it,” one parent wrote this week in a Northern Virginia schools Facebook group.

Another replied: “Bingo!!," asserting that schools were using “the snow storm as the ‘smoke & mirrors’ to the Covid stuff going around after winter break.”

But school officials disputed that idea.

Asked about the reason for the week-long closures, Arlington spokesman Frank Bellavia said that his district received heavy snowfall, more than what fell in Maryland.

Arlington almost opened midweek — the school system on Wednesday night tweeted a GIF of a panda promising to welcome children back into classrooms the next day — but officials had to backtrack later that evening, apologizing in a follow-up tweet and asserting school was canceled Thursday. Bellavia said that most of Arlington’s employees live in other school districts, and that closures in places such as Fairfax had caused a dramatic drop in the number of Arlington staffers able to work.

“We started the day on Wednesday with just above 60 percent of our usual staff fill rate which was manageable,” Bellavia said. “But when neighboring divisions announced they were closing, that number fell to below 50 percent. At that point, we made the decision to close because we did not have adequate staffing to effectively open our schools.”

Fairfax spokeswoman Julie Moult offered a similar rationale. She said that travel remained unsafe in large swaths of the county throughout the week, frustrating the best efforts of school teams who worked hard to clear parking lots, rooftops of buses and sidewalks — who sometimes cleared away downed trees in addition to snow.

“While on some days we contemplated a delayed start even with the above conditions, we also found that these conditions, coupled with the existing bus driver shortage … would have [resulted] in up to 90 minute delays in some instances, exacerbating the unsafe conditions,” she said.

Both Arlington, which enrolls 23,000, and Fairfax, which enrolls 180,000, adopted policies this year allowing a certain number of traditional snow days before the system switches over to holding virtual school when classes are canceled for inclement weather.

After this week, the two systems have each burned through five of their snow days — meaning Fairfax will hold virtual schooling on any snow days going forward, Moult confirmed; Arlington has two remaining. The remote learning will involve “synchronous instruction, with teachers teaching from home,” she said.

Moult said Fairfax could not have attempted online learning this past week because many students had not brought their devices home with them during winter break.

Bellavia said Arlington “could have provided virtual school, but we wanted students to have normal snow days.”

Snow days persist even in an era of virtual learning

Loudoun, meanwhile, has opted never to have online class during snow days. Spokesman Wayde Byard said that is because the Internet can be extremely patchy in the county, which is sprawling and rural in places.

Byard said Loudoun, whose student body numbers 81,000, was able to offer two days of in-person schooling this week because the county was “not as hard-hit by the winter storms” as other Northern Virginia districts. He said Loudoun faced staffing shortages, with employees out sick this week, but managed to make up the gaps and maintain a regular schedule by inserting “support and administrative personnel into classrooms.”

Alexandria school officials did not respond to a detailed list of questions Friday afternoon. But school board member Kelly Booz, who declined an interview, posted a long series of thoughts to Twitter on Wednesday, speaking in a personal capacity.

“While the roads are clear and schools are ready … school closures for staff who live outside of Alexandria impact our staff who require childcare sometimes meaning a substitute,” she wrote. “This adds an extra challenge when substitutes were already short and needed to cover COVID-related absences that have increased with Omicron.”

Arlington parent Megan Tucker, who has one 5-year-old attending day care and one 9-year-old in third grade, said the school shutdown this week gave her and her husband something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder as they flashed back to the early months of the pandemic.

“Both children here, and we’re trying to placate them with iPads, manage all of their needs, while two parents are working full-time,” said Tucker, 42.

Luckily, said Tucker, who works in communications, she and her husband — who performs audit and tax services for a law firm — were able to work from home this week. Both of their employers had decided to require telework, given the threat of omicron.

But it was hectic and stressful, Tucker said, and she wound up allowing her children far more screen-time than she wanted to. She said she worries for parents who were not able to adjust their working schedules to suddenly accommodate a full week of their kids staying at home.