Ultimately, said Alexandria Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., it is more important for children to return for five days a week of in-person learning than it is for his school system to follow social distancing recommendations.
“We may not even be having this discussion in the fall, and I hope we’re not,” Hutchings said.
He said he also hopes that the widespread vaccination of students throughout the summer will pave the way for the CDC to recommend the end of social distancing in schools. “But I think it is important for us to bring this [issue] up now, because we already know that will be the situation,” he said.
Hutchings said he is expecting most of Alexandria’s 16,000 students to return for in-person schooling in the fall. He said a survey in May will give parents a choice between five days of in-person learning and a totally virtual program.
In Arlington, which enrolls about 27,000 students, school officials said most parents have already chosen — and the numbers show a vast preference for in-person schooling.
As of May 5, almost 20,000 Arlington families had selected face-to-face instruction for next year, representing about 78 percent of the student body. Just 1,290 families chose distance learning, while 4,421 families made no choice, which defaults to in-person learning.
“Given the enrollment we are anticipating, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to maintain three feet of distance in every classroom,” Arlington Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán said Thursday. “However, we will implement three feet to the extent possible in every school.”
Neither Fairfax County Public Schools nor Loudoun County Public Schools has announced what it will do about the CDC’s three-foot guideline in the fall. Both districts have promised to return most of their students — 180,000 in Fairfax and 81,000 in Loudoun — for five days a week of in-person learning by the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.
Asked about the issue Thursday, Fairfax spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said the school system is “hopeful . . . the [three-foot] guidance will be relaxed still further by the time school opens” in August.
“Our schools will be socially distancing to the greatest extent possible and we will continue to follow health and safety guidance to the greatest extent practicable,” Lloyd said in a statement.
A spokesman for Loudoun, Wayde Byard, said the school system plans to examine “the mitigation measures in effect” come fall. He said “we have not specifically talked about distance in the fall.”
Remote learning in fall
This week, school officials in Fairfax and Alexandria also laid out what fall might look like for remote learners — while emphasizing that remote learning should be the option of last resort. In Fairfax, Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said families will be able to choose remote learning only if they can document a medical need by their children for virtual status.
Alexandria and Arlington are taking slightly less severe stances, allowing any family to opt for virtual learning without giving a reason. Still, Alexandria’s superintendent echoed Brabrand’s language when he said Thursday that he hopes only families with health concerns will pursue the online-only path.
“We are expecting our students to return back in person,” Hutchings said. “We are providing [virtual schooling] just for some families who may have health conditions — and it’s not that it’s solely for health conditions, but really that’s what it should be used for.”
In Fairfax, the school system will develop its own remote-learning program, Brabrand announced this week. Separate versions of the program will be created for elementary, middle and high school students. Classes will follow the in-person school schedules as much as possible.
Virtual school will be taught by Fairfax teachers, and most of them will teach only virtually. Fairfax will use a “competitive process” to decide which teachers transfer to leading the virtual program, according to the superintendent’s presentation. The school system also will have to hire extra staffers to “mitigate staffing challenges.”
A small number of in-person teachers may wind up having to instruct virtual students, too, Fairfax officials acknowledged. But they said the district will do everything it can to minimize this mode of instruction, known as “concurrent” teaching — and also known for its severe difficulties.
Course offerings in Fairfax’s virtual program will depend on student enrollment and staffing capacity, according to the superintendent, although some specialized courses, such as career and technical education classes, will not be available in the virtual program. Students enrolled in online school will be allowed to join in extracurricular activities and athletics “on a case-by-case basis following a review of medical appropriateness and safety,” according to the superintendent’s presentation.
Fairfax is sending a letter this week asking families enrolled in online-only schooling — about half of the student body — whether they want to stick with virtual schooling next year. Families must apply to enter the virtual program, and each will have to provide a certification of medical need signed by a health professional.
In Alexandria, by contrast, remote students will enroll in Virtual Virginia. That program, which has existed for years, is run by the Virginia Department of Education and funded by taxpayer dollars.
It offers courses at the elementary, middle and high school levels, although it does not replicate all classes offered by Alexandria. Its curriculum is aligned with Virginia Education Department standards but does not match the pacing and sequencing of Alexandria’s curriculum. Students who enroll in the program will be taught by state teachers, not Alexandria teachers.
Alexandria will have to pay a tuition fee to the Education Department for every student that enrolls in Virtual Virginia — $2,275 per semester per kindergarten-through-fifth-grade student, and $225 per every course a student takes each semester for sixth-through- 12th-graders.
The fee is nonrefundable, so Alexandria is mandating that every family’s choice between in-person and virtual learning remain binding for at least one semester. Alexandria will provide virtual learners with the necessary technology and Internet access.
Children who enroll in Virtual Virginia will be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics.
A few weeks ago, Fairfax considered enrolling its remote students in Virtual Virginia in the fall. But school officials decided against the idea after board members raised concerns about the quality of the education in the state program in comparison with what the school system can offer.
Some good news
Alexandria officials also announced what they called promising vaccination news Thursday: Almost half of staffers are reporting that they are fully vaccinated. And 95 percent said they were able to return and work in person as of May 5.
In addition, a group of students presented their detailed proposal for an in-person graduation ceremony. It will take place in Chinquapin Park, a large outdoor venue, and will be “single-session,” meaning all students will be able to attend, probably with two to four guests each. The ceremony will be live-streamed on several platforms.
The student presenters, including Class of 2021 President Karam Burjas of T.C. Williams High School — soon to be called Alexandria City High School — walked listeners through a list of the careful calculations they performed to figure out exactly how to accommodate every student while maintaining six feet of social distancing.
The ceremony will take place June 12 at 9:30 a.m. The seniors will get to walk across a stage to receive their diplomas, Burjas said.
“We did push for fireworks, but that’s not going to happen,” he said. “And we did push for Katy Perry, but she hasn’t gotten back to me yet.”