He misses the human moments that inspired him to become a teacher — the face-pulling in response to a strange line of Shakespeare, the bright eyes signaling sudden understanding. He worries for children living in unstable homes, deprived of the classrooms that served as havens. And he long ago grew exhausted with his work-from-home setup, his family’s small house diced into quarters that do not separate O’Grady, his wife and two children.
Still. He fears the virus. He is not confident his school will take sufficient safety precautions. He doesn’t want to get sick, or his family to get sick. And if he and his wife, also a teacher, do return to school, he has no idea what they will do for child care.
“There just isn’t a good answer,” O’Grady said. “I’ve never been so worried for myself, for my family, for my kids, for my community, for my students. I’ve never been so concerned about the existence of so many people at the same time.”
His time to decide is running out. O’Grady, along with roughly 14,500 educators in Fairfax, has until Wednesday to choose between teaching from home or in the classroom in the coming school year. Families in the Northern Virginia district, which educates 189,000 students, face a similar choice: 100 percent distance learning or a hybrid option that will bring kids to campus for at least two days of in-person instruction each week.
What parents say will go. For teachers, there is no guarantee the district will honor their choice. Where they wind up will depend on how many families request in-person learning, and whether they or family members suffer health issues rendering them more susceptible to the virus.
As the deadline approaches, frantic calculations, whispered prayers for guidance and furious debates are playing out in homes, in online forums and during long, contentious virtual board meetings. Families, teachers and administrators are fracturing into entrenched camps.
Hundreds of parents, clamoring for a full five days of face-to-face school, have joined such Facebook groups as “Open Fairfax County Schools” and “RE-OPEN FAIRFAX,” which urges members to like “our linked page ‘Virginia Women for Trump’ for more great reopening news!” But the district’s three major unions issued a statement in late June urging their members to select distance learning en masse unless administrators revise their fall plans.
And many, like O’Grady, have no idea what to think, do or feel.
An already wrenching decision is further complicated by a brewing political maelstrom — escalating daily as President Trump demands in all-caps tweets that schools reopen nationwide. The pressure may be hotter in Fairfax County than anywhere else: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has twice singled out the district for criticism, calling its hybrid reopening plans disastrous and insisting it is “fail[ing] America’s students.”
Fairfax Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said DeVos’s remarks are not helpful. He is trying to ignore her, and any politician who engages in “teacher bashing, principal bashing, school district bashing and superintendent bashing.”
“Now is not the time for critics and criticism against folks who are trying to do the right thing for kids, families and our society,” he said. “This is the most difficult moment to be a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, a school educator in — in at least a generation.”
O’Grady and his wife debate the decision any moment they can steal. He studies newspapers and the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He religiously tracks updates posted by the school system and the county. He has set up phone calls with county School Board members, seeking more information, and he’s devouring every scientific paper he can find.
Four days out from his deadline, he still had no idea what their answer would be. O’Grady has begun phoning his mother, an epidemiologist, every other evening.
“Mom,” he asks, “what should we do?”
Back to school
Catherine Smith knew her decision immediately: Her daughter would return to school.
Despite the best efforts of her teacher, virtual learning was a fiasco for the high school junior, who struggles with science and math. Without a teacher to look over her shoulder or prod her to do her work, the teenager basically stopped learning physics and chemistry.
“This is supposed to be a gold-standard, world-class school system,” Smith said. “I personally think they ought to be back five days a week.”
Smith, who declined to share her political affiliation, said she was thrilled to see DeVos slam Fairfax. “It’s a rightful calling out,” she said. “We expect more. We expect better.” She’s a member of “Open Fairfax County Schools” on Facebook.
On other pages on the social media site, some parents have cast reluctant teachers as cowards. “If you can’t teach kids for 5 days a week, give back the money you ask taxpayers every year,” one woman wrote in reply to a public post about Fairfax’s reopening plans.
“Grocery store clerks can be at work with reasonable protections and teachers can’t?” a man commented. They “just need to take reasonable precautions. Ridiculous.”
Some members of the School Board have also raised concerns about the plan. Member Megan McLaughlin said five days of in-person school must be the ultimate goal, although any reopening must adhere to guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics and follow recommendations from county health officials.
“When you look at Fairfax County’s own covid data for youth 0 to 17, there have been zero deaths and far fewer cases,” McLaughlin said. She also pointed out that many schools overseas have opened without outbreaks — such as in China and Denmark.
Heightening some families’ mistrust of online learning are memories of Fairfax’s disastrous spring. After weeks of preparation, the district’s initial efforts collapsed after privacy breaches, online harassment and technical failures. The chaos led to the resignation of the school’s top tech official.
In an interview, Brabrand said Fairfax “struggled for two weeks” but the school system recovered and offered two months of excellent distance learning, superior to programs in the region and nationwide. He expects the fall will be the same, he said.
Brabrand said he will reopen school fully, for five days a week, only when experts say people can stand within 18 inches of one another without transmitting the virus. That’s the average distance between Fairfax students under normal conditions, he said.
“With our schools at full capacity,” he said, “it’s just not possible to maintain social distancing.”
The superintendent is winning local support. In an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) asserted that his state is “not going to be rushed into” fully reopening schools and will instead probably take a “hybrid” approach, similar to Fairfax’s.
According to a proposal from Montgomery County, his state’s largest school district, schools would open on Aug. 31 with remote learning. Students would gradually return to school buildings for up to two days a week in the fall.
“From the beginning of this crisis we’ve always been working closely with our doctors, our scientists and our epidemiologists to make sure that we’re doing the things that make the most sense,” Hogan said.
But DeVos stuck to her hard line Sunday, failing to answer directly when asked about Brabrand’s concern over spacing and insisting the federal recommendation to keep students at least six feet apart is mere guidance, meant to be flexible. During an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” DeVos said she hopes Brabrand will meet with her team to “talk about ways that they can look at this freshly.”
“Kids have got to be learning full time,” she said.
Simon Jacoby, a high school senior, plans to return to campus. He trusts the social distancing plans, except in the bathrooms, where many students sneak to vape. And he’s used to donning a mask for his job at an Italian restaurant. If anything, he worries Fairfax will add too many unnecessary, fussy rules. But he’s going back no matter what.
“At home, with my phone, surrounded by all the distractions possible, I don’t do anything,” he said. “At school, they tell you what to do and you don’t have any choice but to do it.”
Lisa Zargarpur, an elementary school music teacher, said she developed enough tricks last semester to make teaching virtually work pretty well. Nonetheless, she is planning to teach in person next year.
At 50, Zargarpur said, she does not feel seriously at risk. She also has a healthy immune system, as do her husband and three children. She owes it to her colleagues with medical conditions, she said, not to take up an online teaching slot.
Zargarpur knows music class will look very different: no sharing of instruments, no partnered folk dance routines and probably no singing. But she is excited for the challenge — and she says she’s starting to feel that familiar, back-to-school thrill.
“In the end,” she said, “it comes down to this: I miss my students, and I want to go back and see them.”
Opting, or hoping, for home
Teachers will probably get their assignments at the end of July, Brabrand said, after the district processes parent preferences and calculates how many staffers it needs inside school buildings. Teachers with medical conditions will receive first priority. Those with at-risk family members or child-care needs get second priority. The rest get last priority.
Many don’t expect to get their wish. They are preparing for disappointment as best they can: tracking every twist in federal health guidance and then comparing it to Fairfax’s reopening plans; emailing and attending hours-long virtual town halls to determine what school will look like; and sifting through YouTube to study how other teachers have navigated socially distant classrooms.
And, sometimes, they are pulling spouses into rooms where they cannot be overheard by children to discuss what will happen if mom and dad get sick. Or die.
“I’m wondering what will happen if I am exposed to COVID,” an English teacher said in an email, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I’m wondering what PPE I will be given, because I’ve never in 10 years been issued a single box of tissues or hand sanitizer.”
“I hope,” she added, “that parents recognize what we are sacrificing for them and their children.”
Becca Alfano suspects her situation will not win her a virtual spot. She is 30 and healthy, and so is her husband. She is just ending a year’s maternity leave, which she spent caring for her daughter, who was born in September.
The girl was 6 months old when the pandemic hit, so she never got to experience the gradual exposure to the outside world her mother had planned. Now, Alfano worries about her daughter’s untested immune system. Throughout the summer, she has refused to take her into any buildings. The most she has dared do is carry the baby on occasional walks outdoors.
Alfano already found a day care, so that’s not a concern. But she is worried about what will happen when her request to teach remotely is inevitably denied and she comes home from work each day, because there’s no way she can isolate from her little girl.
“That would be absolutely traumatizing for her,” she said. “And I can’t put that on my husband either. He can’t be the sole caregiver.”
Fairfax special education teacher Karen Roth, meanwhile, is fixated on what might happen to her parents. They live in Indiana and are in their late 70s. Her mother just had a heart monitor installed. Her father recently suffered three strokes. Her only living sibling is battling cancer.
“I am the last one who is healthy enough to go help them in a crisis,” she said.
Roth, who keeps a tab open on her laptop with The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker, is careful to avoid virus exposure. She rarely visits the grocery store. She hasn’t gotten her hair cut since February. (“And I don’t look good.”)
Still, she has yet to select her preference between in-person or remote teaching. She is aching to see her students — but one thought holds her back.
“What if I go back to school and get the virus, or think I might have the virus, or am just not sure if I have the virus, and one of my parents has an emergency?” she said. “I have to be there.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.