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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As fear of the virus wins out, a fast retreat from in-person learning

From the moment schools shuttered unceremoniously in March, one thought dominated: How to return.

Officials across the Washington region huddled to make plans for a triumphant resumption of in-person learning. Discussions persisted into the summer: Superintendents held listening sessions to solicit safety suggestions, parents tried to convince kids that face masks aren’t so bad, and educators scoured YouTube for videos depicting what socially distant teaching looks like in other countries.

Fairfax County Public Schools was the first to promise that kids could return, if only for two days a week. Still, administrators there offered a choice: Parents could also keep their kids home for 100 percent online learning. Almost immediately, several nearby school systems debuted near-identical plans, built around what became known as the “hybrid option.”

But as July rolled around — and coronavirus cases held stubbornly steady in the D.C. area, while surging to unprecedented heights elsewhere — momentum for in-person school stalled. Then it shifted in the other direction. A vocal coalition of teachers, staff and parents clamored for online-only instruction. They sent long emails and made angry phone calls. They flooded virtual board meetings, where teachers gave tearful testimony about how they were being forced to pick between their jobs or their lives.

Despite mounting pressure from President Trump to reopen full time, district after district gave in. In the span of two weeks, at least half a dozen school systems in D.C., Maryland and Virginia — the president’s backyard — declared they would start the fall fully virtual. Some that had previously chosen a hybrid model made a last-minute switch. Most dramatically, District officials changed their minds an hour before they were scheduled to debut a plan for in-person instruction, instead announcing they would wait until July 31 to make a final decision.

The same scene has played out nationally in recent days, as prominent school systems — in Los Angeles, Houston and elsewhere — have said they will stay virtual in the fall.

“I think the rubber hit the road when, no matter your political affiliation, you had to sit down, look people in the face and tell them what the risk is,” said Fairfax County School Board member Laura Jane Cohen. “It’s the real panic of, ‘I am making a choice for my child or myself that could cost me my life.’ ”

She is among several board members arguing that Fairfax should reverse itself and adopt a 100 percent virtual return to school. The board has a meeting with Superintendent Scott Brabrand this week, she said.

In an interview Thursday, Brabrand left open the possibility he could be persuaded.

“The work we’re doing now lays the groundwork for the return to school, whether that has to happen Sept. 8 or Oct. 8 or when,” the superintendent said.

Asked what he expects for the fall, he replied: “The most honest answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

'So many complexities'

Fairfax is not the only holdout. A handful of systems in the Washington region are still clinging to the hybrid option — and, as fall inches closer, are working frantically to develop safety protocols.

In Montgomery County, school board member Patricia O’Neill said she has never felt such pressure. Her school system, Maryland’s largest with more than 166,000 students, has released a draft proposal that starts out with remote learning then gradually sends students back to school campuses.

But the county’s health officer, Travis Gayles, has said the county is not ready to return to school, and the county’s coronavirus cases are on the rise. O’Neill’s inbox is filled with hundreds of worried or terrified emails, including a recent message from a teacher that began, “I don’t want to die.”

“This really is a matter of life and death,” O’Neill said in an interview. “I understand children have lost a lot in learning, [but] I don’t want to jeopardize children, I don’t want to jeopardize staff and I don’t want to jeopardize community members.”

The science is inconclusive: Children do not often become seriously ill or die of covid-19, but less is known about how easily they spread the coronavirus that causes the disease to adults. Health experts remain divided, but many have begun advocating for at least some in-person school, offering families not just a better education but mental-health support, food security, child care and more.

Nonetheless, an outspoken contingent of parents and teachers remains convinced that reopening schools is too dangerous. In surveys sent out by districts across the region, as many as half or more of families and educators indicated they would prefer online school.

Teachers in particular say the proposed safety protocols fall short. They have a lot of questions: Exactly how much protective equipment will schools provide? How will mask-wearing be enforced, especially among young children? How frequently will classrooms be cleaned?

And, most importantly, what will happen if someone in a school contracts the virus?

“It has so many complexities,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which is pushing for a fully virtual approach. “The list of questions just keeps growing.”

In Montgomery County, teachers grew outraged at a meeting Thursday night as union leaders involved in reopening discussions gave details about masks and cleaning supplies, and whether educators had a choice in returning to classrooms.

Dozens wrote letters to the school board, urging the school system switch to 100 percent online learning, putting aside any hybrid or in-person approach for now — as neighboring Prince George’s and Howard counties did.

“To say I am distraught right now is an understatement,” teacher Katharine Watson later wrote the school board. “The absolute disregard for teacher and student safety is heinous.”

The union followed up Friday with a statement calling Montgomery’s efforts “wholly inadequate” to protect health and safety. In turn, school system leaders posted a video disputing many of the reported safety issues.

In Loudoun County, which is offering two days a week in person, some teachers and parents had a similarly angry reaction when they learned about the initial plan for cleaning materials, which said the school would not provide any and barred teachers from bringing their own. A day later, the district backtracked.

“Loudoun County Public Schools will provide cleaning supplies for teachers to use in their classrooms,” officials wrote in an email, underlining the word “will.” “This is . . . based on feedback received from teachers and parents.”

Fairfax recently published a nine-page “Student Health and Safety Guidance Document” that mandates meals in the classroom, daily temperature checks and face coverings for anyone older than 2. The document also forbids balls and ropes on the playground, and urges school staff to teach kids “games or recess activities that minimize close physical contact.”

But Fairfax school board member Karl Frisch doubts any of those preparations will be sufficient. He was struggling to make up his mind about the best strategy for fall until last week, when someone asked him what his partner, a Fairfax teacher, plans to do.

Now, Frisch is pushing for an all-virtual start.

“It didn’t sink in, until then, that I was in a position to put him in danger,” Frisch said in an interview, starting to cry. “I would not be able to live with myself if something happened to him, or anybody else.”

He added: “I hope to God I’m wrong. But when schools reopen, people are going to die.”

'School is in session'

Wherever districts eventually land, there’s little question that most learning will happen online for the foreseeable future. Which leaves officials facing another daunting question: How can they ensure virtual school is better than its often-disastrous first round?

The nationwide switch to virtual classes exposed vast inequities at schools across the Washington region, where teachers at low-income schools said attendance was dismal and many students were disconnected.

This time around, officials say, they’ll be better prepared. In Arlington Public Schools, which last week ditched a hybrid program for fully virtual school, all 28,000 students now have devices. The system used $1.6 million in federal pandemic relief money to buy 5,000 additional iPads.

And unlike in the spring, the students will receive hours of video instruction, learn new material and receive grades. The district will also offer “full Special Education support,” including occupational therapy and speech counseling, delivered via video, said Bridget Loft, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

“We’ll even be able to have arts and PE,” Loft said, “to the great credit of our teachers, who figured out creative ways to present their content.”

In Montgomery County, parents complained last spring about students not getting enough time with teachers; the fall plan features more live instruction, officials say. Likewise in D.C., where Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said students will have at least one real-time video class each day.

In Montgomery County, schools and parents clash over how much teachers and students are connecting

For parent Russchelle Moore, improved virtual offerings are welcome news. Even if the District does offer some in-person classes, she will not choose that option for her 15-year-old son: The teenager has asthma, and she’s not taking any chances.

Last spring, Moore’s son started online learning with Internet access but no laptop until a community organization gave him one. Even then, the teen usually completed his coursework on his own, emailing teachers when he had questions.

Moore, a full-time college student herself, said she will have to balance her own coursework with helping her son through his lessons. And this semester the stakes will be higher — D.C. teachers will take attendance, and students will be penalized if they do not log on.

“School,” Ferebee said, “is in session.”

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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