Alexandria officials, meanwhile, reported that about 1,700 of the school division’s nearly 2,700 staffers had begun the vaccination process. Close to 60 percent of staff have indicated they will be able to head back inside buildings to teach in person, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. said at a board meeting Tuesday.
The school system of 16,000 will have to hire about 100 “classroom monitors” — aides who oversee students in person while a teacher instructs via video from home — to make up the shortage. That mode of instruction being pursued throughout the Washington region has already drawn criticism from some families who see it as an inadequate stopgap solution.
“We have to accept that opening our school buildings is not going to solve all of our issues,” Hutchings said at the meeting. “Opening our school buildings is not going to take us back to how things were prior to March 16th” of last year.
Both Northern Virginia school systems have been largely remote-only for close to a year, and both promised earlier this month that they would start sending children back into classrooms in March. They are under pressure from Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who wants schools statewide to offer some form of in-person learning by March 15.
Arlington and Alexandria are aiming to return all students who choose it to a few days a week of face-to-face instruction by mid-March.
At the Tuesday meeting, Hutchings warned that transitioning to the hybrid model will bring a new slate of irritations and challenges after a year of pandemic learning that many found extraordinarily difficult. Alexandria plans to return students with disabilities and English-language learners in kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as some young special-education students, on March 2 — although anyone who chooses to can keep learning virtually.
One of the challenges will be busing. Given social distancing constraints, the school system cannot transport all the students who chose hybrid learning in one run. Instead, bus drivers will have to perform “double runs” for elementary, middle and high schools, which means some students will arrive at school after the first bell and others will get home later than they did pre-pandemic.
Alexandria officials are encouraging every student who can to walk or be driven to school.
“There’s going to be a shift of what the new problems are that are going to come,” Hutchings said. “This is going to be a long-term issue for all of us.”
At an Arlington County School Board meeting Thursday, Superintendent Francisco Durán detailed how officials will try to mitigate health risks as teachers and students start returning to classrooms next month — including by asking employees and children to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and stay socially distant.
In Arlington, about 230 students with disabilities who require hands-on intervention have been learning in person since early November. Some career and technical education students returned to classrooms on Feb. 3, and the next group of students — prekindergarteners through second-graders, as well as some elementary school special-education students — are scheduled to return March 2.
Durán said officials have spent months planning and preparing for how to do this safely. In addition to the daily health screener, he said, Arlington is aiming to ensure that every classroom receives sufficient ventilation.
This has been a particular concern in the county. A coalition of parents and teachers calling themselves “Smart Restart APS” recently conducted an analysis of air quality in Arlington, concluding that the school system should purchase 1,500 additional air cleaners to achieve an acceptable level of air circulation and filtration in all classrooms. At the meeting, several parents and teachers called on board members to ensure that air quality improves significantly before anyone sets foot inside school buildings.
In his presentation Thursday, Durán said Arlington is following guidance from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health regarding classroom ventilation, and that the school division is hoping to offer between four and six air changes per hour in every classroom space. He said Arlington expects that 100 percent of its classrooms will meet that target by the time of reopening.
Durán also noted that teachers can pursue “lower-cost” strategies such as opening windows and doors.
He also addressed the question of student meals during in-person learning, another issue that has generated discussion in Arlington — and that was also the subject of parent and teacher testimony during the meeting.
The superintendent said schools will try to hold meals outside whenever weather permits. If extreme temperatures or high winds make that impossible, he said, students will eat inside classrooms seated six feet apart and tucked behind clear partitions. In larger spaces, such as cafeterias or gymnasiums, children might sit 10 feet apart, he said.
“At this point, we are moving forward with confidence in our mitigation measures and our ability to implement them,” Durán said.
His remarks followed more than an hour of commentary from teachers, parents and students on different sides of the reopening debate. Some mothers and fathers, as well as educators, pleaded for a delay in the reopening timeline. Many cited worries over air filtration or said they disliked the idea that Arlington children will be removing their masks to eat indoors during a pandemic.
One high-schooler said she had surveyed peers on whether they wanted to head back to school, and the vast majority reported they would rather stay home. A 27-year-veteran teacher said she disagreed with the decision to reopen.
Still, other parents praised the reopening plans, arguing that students have suffered serious emotional and academic harm during online learning. One woman said she found it terrifying to consider the effects of so much screen time on the county’s youngest children.
By contrast, the Alexandria meeting was a work session, which meant it did not include public comment. Hutchings nonetheless took a moment to ask for grace from frustrated parents, teachers and students.
“There is no decision we can make that will please everybody,” he said. “Every single thing we do, there is a problem.”