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Students in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland return to school buildings after long break

Students arrive at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Tobias Akseizer, 7, knew his day at school was going to be “weird” when the substitute teachers started passing the children between them like parcels.

He had known before Monday, his first day back in person at his Alexandria City Public Schools elementary school in nearly a month, that his actual teacher was out sick. But Tobias hadn’t known that he’d be handed between substitutes over the course of the day, transferring from his art teacher to his music teacher to his physical education teacher.

Each successive teacher read instructions off pieces of paper left for them by Tobias’s regular teacher, Tobias said, then supervised as he and his classmates set to work on their own pieces of paper, also prepared by his regular teacher. It was “kind of an odd day,“ he added.

“I miss my teacher,” Tobias said. But “I still liked being at school, because I didn’t like being stuck at home for three weeks.”

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

Tobias was one of hundreds of thousands of children in the D.C. area who headed back into classrooms Monday after a holiday break from face-to-face learning that was lengthened for many by storms that dumped more than a foot of snow on the Washington region last week. Although school systems in D.C. and Maryland managed to return students to in-person classes for at least a day last week, three Northern Virginia systems — those in Alexandria City, Fairfax County and Arlington — never sent children into classrooms at all, stymied by the snow and by staffing concerns.

The first day after break, often a rocky one even before the coronavirus pandemic, had all the extra starts and stumbles that come with a public health crisis — and especially with the rise of a highly contagious omicron variant that has left school districts nationwide grappling with more severe staff shortages than they already had. Tobias’s experiences dealing with substitutes or makeshift teaching fixes was hardly unique.

In Arlington Public Schools, with about 26,000 students, 333 teachers were absent Monday, according to spokesman Frank Bellavia. That’s about 11 percent of all teachers, he said. In nearby Loudoun County Public Schools, a system that enrolls 81,000, 16 percent of instructional personnel failed to report to work Monday, although the district was still able to offer all classes on time with no cancellations, according to spokesman Wayde Byard.

And in Montgomery County Public Schools, whose 160,000 students make it the largest district in Maryland, 89 bus routes went uncovered in the morning, leaving students to find their own way to school, according to school system officials. Of the 1,271 requests that schools made for substitute teachers Monday, 893 went unfilled — more than 70 percent.

David Akseizer, 43, Tobias’s father, said he was just glad his son finally made it back into an actual classroom. He said he suspects Tobias’s school, and the Alexandria district at large, will continue to be plagued by staffing issues in the months to come.

“But we’ll take what we can get,” he said. “Even if it means a lesser education.”

Still, this wasn’t the case in every classroom.

Asked about staff shortages, Alexandria spokeswoman Julia Burgos said that, across all school campuses, less than 10 percent of staff were absent Monday at each site. She said data on student attendance was not yet available.

“All ACPS schools [provided] a normal level of service for operations and in-person learning today,” she said. She noted that school staff had worked through the weekend to facilitate the reopening Monday.

In Fairfax County Public Schools, there were “minimal staffing shortages," according to spokeswoman Julie Moult. There were no class cancellations or delays. The district was able to fill gaps by pulling in “around 300 central office staff,” spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said.

Students showed up in good numbers, too: About 8 percent were absent Monday, a small increase from the typical daily average absentee rate of about 5.4 percent, Moult said.

“Our return to school following the winter break went very smoothly today,” she said.

And in Loudoun, middle school teacher Beth Powell said she had a very normal day Monday.

Only four staffers at her school were out sick, she said, and all but five of her roughly 110 students showed up to class — mirroring districtwide data, which showed that about 93 percent of all students came to school Monday, according to Byard.

“I might be a weird one out, but I haven’t had an issue,” Powell said.

D.C. required negative coronavirus tests to return to school. Did it work?

In Maryland on Monday, some parents said they kept their children home, and others said it was largely a regular school day, or as regular as school days can be during the pandemic.

Laura Stewart, an education advocate who lives in Silver Spring, said her high-schooler had only one teacher out, compared to three out last week. His classes were mostly full, and he ate lunch outside, as usual; students at his school have the option to eat inside or outside. He came home with a virus test kit — part of the Montgomery school system’s recent promises to distribute kits at schools, as well as KN95 masks to students, as it has already done for staff.

Stewart said she would have preferred it if the school system had rolled out a robust testing program before everyone went back to class.

“It was still a risk sending my kid in without knowing everyone was tested,” she said. Still, she said, the school day got better: “It’s a big improvement.”

Elsewhere in the county, a petition calling for a shift to virtual learning is gaining traction. Zoe Cantor, a senior, posted the petition Friday after the school system reversed course on its plan for switching “red” level schools to virtual learning and stopped reporting the percentages of students and staff who tested positive. It has more than 14,000 names.

“I felt pretty unsafe, and I know many of my peers did too,” she said.

Schools in Prince George’s County, meanwhile, moved to virtual learning shortly before winter break, making the district an outlier in the Washington region, where the vast majority of schools have remained in on-site learning mode. Prince George’s students are not expected to be back in classrooms until Jan. 18.

In D.C., school officials announced Monday that three schools — Jefferson Middle, Cardozo Education Campus and LaSalle-Backus Elementary — had shifted to virtual instruction because of students testing positive for the virus. D.C. Public Schools last week implemented a “test-to-return” program that requires children and staffers to produce negative tests before they can reenter buildings.

Of the roughly 40,000 students who submitted test results across the school system, 2,280 tested positive last week, officials said. Meanwhile, KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network — had seen 375 students test positive out of the 5,696 who submitted results, as of Sunday. No schools were required to close, spokesman Adam Rupe said.

State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant said Monday that a test-to-return program will continue after any scheduled break for the rest of the school year. Students will receive rapid antigen kits before they leave for a break.