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Alexandria City Public Schools sets date for reopening; Arlington refuses to follow suit

Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., seen in his office last summer, said ”the time is now” to reopen classrooms.
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., seen in his office last summer, said ”the time is now” to reopen classrooms. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Alexandria City Public Schools this week joined a flood of Northern Virginia school systems in setting firm timelines for reopening classrooms, vowing to welcome all students back for in-person learning by mid-March.

But in Arlington, school officials aren’t committing to return dates just yet.

At a board meeting Thursday night, the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools said the school system of 16,000 students will start returning children to classrooms on March 2. The first batch will include kindergartners through fifth-graders with disabilities, as well as children in that same age group whose first language is not English.

From there, Alexandria will return more children each week — prioritizing students with disabilities and English-language learners — until March 16, when children of all grade levels who choose hybrid learning will be able to return for two days of in-person learning every week.

“We are now ready, it is now time for this pivot to occur,” Alexandria Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. said at the meeting. “It has been almost a year since we closed the doors to our school buildings.”

Alexandria’s announcement came just two days after Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools also promised to have all of their children back in classrooms by mid-March. Like Alexandria, those school systems will start inviting students into school buildings in the next few weeks.

Virginia’s largest school systems vow to reopen classrooms for all by March

But in Arlington Public Schools, Superintendent Francisco Durán on Thursday night told board members — and hundreds of listening parents, many of them irate — that he was not ready to commit to a firm date for the launch of in-person learning.

He noted that although Arlington has seen a decrease in its case incidence rate over the past week, the county continues to exceed the “highest risk” category of coronavirus transmission.

“We’re going to continue, and I’m going to continue, to make the best decisions for the children of Arlington,” he said.

Alexandria and Arlington, like all large school systems in Northern Virginia, have been offering online-only education to the vast majority of their students since March. Alexandria returned six students with disabilities to classrooms for in-person learning in November, but sent those kids home — and canceled a planned return for other students — shortly afterward, as cases spiked close to winter break.

Virginia governor calls on all schools in state to reopen by March 15.

Arlington, meanwhile, returned about 230 students with disabilities who cannot learn without hands-on instruction to classrooms in early November. That group has kept learning in person ever since.

On Wednesday, Arlington nearly doubled that number, sending about 200 career and technical education students back into classrooms. Still, officials are refusing to give a firm date for the return of the next cohort of students: prekindergarten through second-graders and elementary school students with learning disabilities.

Durán said he will announce that date — and dates for every remaining cohort of students — at the next school board meeting, slated to take place Feb. 18.

At Thursday’s meeting, some parents who spoke boiled over with frustration at the delay.

Mothers and fathers repeatedly referenced the fact that Arlington is the only large Northern Virginia system that still lacks a clear, public schedule for the return to school buildings. One parent played a recording of her child breaking down in frustration as he attempted to participate in online classes.

In response, Durán asked for patience. He said he knows that everyone wants to be back in school, but that school officials must “do it safely.”

Other parent speakers echoed his concerns. They said they believe Arlington should keep schooling all-virtual until the school system has finished improving its ventilation systems, ensured all staff are vaccianted and developed a better testing plan.

In Alexandria, Hutchings said he was done waiting.

He said everything — community health data, facility preparedness, the staffing situation — spells a return to in-person instruction.

“The time is now,” he said. “We are ready to open our doors.”

After months of planning, protests and false starts, D.C. students and teachers head to classes for first time in nearly a year

Alicia Hart, Alexandria’s executive director of facilities and operations, said employees have been working for months to ensure buildings are outfitted with all the necessary equipment. Her workers have delivered tons of personal protective equipment, as well as temperature-scanning units.

Her department is also training bus drivers on how to safely transport students. Hart said Alexandria will have the capacity to drive all students who have said they want to return for in-person learning — but she still urged parents who can do so to pursue other methods of transit. She particularly encouraged those who live within a mile and a half of their school buildings to consider walking to class.

“We do need family support,” she said.

Over the next few days, Alexandria will distribute a questionnaire to staff asking whether they are willing to return and teach in person, as well as whether they have received a coronavirus vaccine — which they are eligible for under Phase 1B of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) distribution plan.

Northern Virginia schools begin vaccinating staff, plan tentative return to classrooms

Although Alexandria cannot compel staffers to reveal their vaccination status, Hutchings said he hopes employees will volunteer the information. Stephen Wilkins, Alexandria’s chief of staff, said human resources will review rationales submitted by employees who wish to remain virtual. Staff will be allowed to keep teaching online-only as their requests are processed.

This story has been updated to add Arlington parent concerns.