Children whose parents have opted to keep them at home will watch a live-stream video of classrooms in which in-person teaching is taking place. Students can also switch from in-person back to virtual at any point, if they deem the environment unsafe.
In an interview, Fauquier Superintendent David Jeck said the reopening day came after months of planning, during which officials solved logistical hurdles such as installing video cameras in more than 900 classrooms and reinventing bus transportation schedules. After all that hard work, he said, Monday went extremely smoothly.
“We went to all 20 schools asking folks how it went and the comments are just fantastic,” Jeck said. “All the feedback I received, 95 percent of it, was very positive and upbeat. People are feeling very good.”
Fauquier’s move to allow most of its student body back inside classrooms places it far ahead of neighboring Northern Virginia school systems. Most of Fauquier’s counterparts have so far returned only small groups of vulnerable students — those with disabilities, young children and English language learners — to school campuses.
Some large systems are inching toward permitting all families who prefer hybrid instruction to return, but progress has been slow. The superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, which enrolls 186,000, last month recommended that the school system adopt a gradual plan for elementary-schoolers, middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, with the goal of returning all children by February. Officials with Loudoun County Public Schools, which serves 82,000, have said they would like to send third- through fifth-graders back to school by early December.
But others in the D.C. area are backing away from face-to-face teaching: Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools last week delayed returning its lower-schoolers to buildings until 2021. That same week, Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland decided to push back a scheduled return for elementary students until February. And D.C. Public Schools recently nixed a plan to bring students into classrooms this week.
One major factor compelling regional school systems to postpone return-to-classroom plans has been teachers’ reluctance to begin instructing children in person, which has led to staff shortages. Citing rising coronavirus cases nationwide and in the Washington area — as well as what they call insufficient safety measures — some vocal teachers’ associations have urged school officials to keep classes online for the rest of the academic year.
But not in Fauquier County, according to Jeck. The vast majority of teachers in the school system were willing to return, he said. The only exceptions were some educators with preexisting health conditions that render them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, who will be allowed to keep teaching virtually.
Just 17 Fauquier teachers requested leaves of absence rather than return, Jeck said.
“We were pretty fortunate, our community rallied and it ultimately worked out,” he said. “We still have our hurdles, but we’re in a better position than some of our neighbors up further north.”
Back inside buildings, teachers and students will follow clear safety protocols. Masks must be worn at all times at school and on the bus. Staff members and children will follow social distancing guidelines “whenever possible,” according to a Fauquier reopening fact sheet.
Fauquier officials are providing employees with two cloth masks each, as well as a reusable face shield. The school system is also requiring that parents and guardians take children’s temperature every morning, and that staff members check their own temperatures, too. If the reading rises above 100 degrees, per school rules, that person must stay home.
The school system has also upped its cleaning schedule: Custodial employees will perform “high contact disinfectant cleaning” during and after the school day. Teachers will receive extra disinfectant wipes. And on Wednesdays, when students and most staff members are not coming into buildings, staff members will clean and disinfect “high-touch areas . . . by the utilization of an electrostatic sprayer,” per a Fauquier reopening FAQ.
Students who chose the in-person learning option were split into two groups by last name. One of the cohorts will learn in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other will learn in person on Thursdays and Fridays.
On bus rides to and from school, one student will be seated per row of seats. Buses will be cleaned between every route, and hand sanitizer will be available.
During the part of the week that the returning cohort is not in school, the children will spend two days learning remotely, under an asynchronous model in which they study independently without any form of live instruction. And one day — Wednesday — will be set aside for teacher office hours.
Students whose families chose the all-virtual option will follow a similar schedule. For two days a week, they will receive live instruction as they watch a video feed of the teaching taking place inside classrooms. Teachers will post assignments, quizzes and activities online as they deliver them to in-person learners, meaning all children can work at the same pace.
For another two days each week, the online-only students will learn asynchronously. And they, like their in-person peers, will spend Wednesday completing homework or attending teacher office hours.
For the most part, according to school officials, everyone will remain with their current teachers.
School officials will reevaluate the system’s learning plan at the “midyear point,” according to the FAQ. But if things go well, Fauquier will probably stay in its hybrid model through the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
Jeck said he hopes that will happen. He spent Monday visiting five different school campuses, and the sight of children sitting at desks — even desks spaced unnaturally far apart — filled him with a sense of joy he hasn’t felt in a long while.
“I can’t even express it — it was just amazing, it was such a breath of fresh air, to have these kids back in schools,” Jeck said. “It makes you feel as though you’re getting back to a state of normalcy.”