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Northern Virginia schools adopt bevy of testing, vaccine rules as pandemic rages

Dorien Traynham during introductions in his fourth-grade class at Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on Aug. 23, the first day back to school for many districts in Northern Virginia.
Dorien Traynham during introductions in his fourth-grade class at Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on Aug. 23, the first day back to school for many districts in Northern Virginia. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

As classrooms reopen, schools in Northern Virginia are working hard to keep pace with the ongoing pandemic — mandating vaccines for staff and student-athletes, adding coronavirus testing for students and staff alike and rethinking mealtime rules.

The decisions come as school systems in the D.C. area, as is the case nationwide, are seeing coronavirus cases at school, which has in turn led to enforced quarantine for dozens and sometimes hundreds of students and employees at a time.

The school systems in Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington all held board meetings Thursday night during which school leaders for the three districts gave updates on safety measures and how in-person learning is proceeding.

In Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls about 16,000, the school board voted to approve eventual routine “surveillance” coronavirus testing, or random testing of a percentage of a population to assess infection rates for students. Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. also said weekly coronavirus testing for unvaccinated staff began last week, fulfilling his promised timeline for the launch of the testing program.

What to know about school masks, staff vaccines and quarantines in the D.C. area

In Arlington, which enrolls 23,000, Superintendent Francisco Durán announced that the district would require vaccination for some student-athletes. He follows in the footsteps of the districts in Fairfax and Loudoun, which recently announced near-identical mandates.

And in Fairfax County Public Schools, whose 189,000 students make it the largest school district in Virginia, officials said they are adjusting lunchtime to maximize safety, including holding more meals outdoors and in alternative spaces such as the gymnasium and foyers. Fairfax also has updated its virtual offerings for students forced to enter quarantine: These children will be allowed to observe some classes live on video, where before they were asked to complete assignments on their own time. Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Thursday that this live-streaming is still being workshopped and will probably start in October.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand sought to project hope Thursday even as he acknowledged, pointing to county infection data, that the pandemic is still in full swing.

“Our focus is on limiting the risk of spread in schools,” Brabrand said. “We know a great deal more about covid now than we did last year. And we also have vaccinations available.”

In Alexandria, the discussion on Thursday quickly turned to vaccination and testing for employees. Like most D.C.-area schools, Alexandria is requiring that staffers be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. The issue proved contentious at the last board meeting Aug. 19, when the board and the superintendent clashed over Hutchings’s proposed late-fall timeline for launching an in-house testing program for unvaccinated teachers. The board deemed that rollout too slow.

After hours of debate, board members voted to direct Hutchings to develop a testing program by late August, although the superintendent said he was not sure he could accomplish that. On Thursday, Alexandria staffers said that they had managed to pull it off and that testing for staffers began a little over a week ago.

Rather than host an in-house testing program, the school system is requiring unvaccinated staffers to upload test results once a week to a school website, a policy that took effect Aug. 30. Staff are receiving testing from third parties off-site as the school system works to develop its own on-site program.

Two school districts, and two radically different approaches to managing the pandemic

Alexandria officials also shared data on employee vaccinations: Of the district’s approximately 2,200 employees, 84 percent reported being vaccinated as of early September. That is a large bump from the 62 percent who reported vaccination in May.

Some school board members said the rate was not high enough. They suggested the district toughen its stance on employee vaccinations by demanding that all staffers get vaccinated unless they can provide a medical or religious reason for exemption.

“The reality is there are 422 staff in our building that don’t have the vaccine,” board member Christopher Suarez said. “I think we need to do something formal to . . . make it clear this is very serious.”

Members later voted to direct Hutchings to propose a stricter staff vaccine mandate at the next meeting. Hutchings said he was open to the idea but that he wants time to think through the implications of such a policy.

“I think we’re all in agreement that we want our staff vaccinated,” he said. “I do think it’s important for us to be able to work through the legal implications that go along with it.”

Hutchings also said the school district needs time to develop a plan for how to discipline recalcitrant staff.

As for Alexandria students, officials said Thursday that they hope to roll out a program that will test about 30 percent of students on every campus in coming weeks. Testing would be voluntary and provided through a third party, although it would take place on campus. Julie Crawford, chief of student services and equity, said Alexandria is in talks with a possible vendor and hopes to finalize the contract by next week.

The board voted unanimously to approve the launch of the program.

But some parents say Alexandria must do more. Amy Hillis, mother to a kindergartner, wrote an online petition asking the school system to implement both surveillance testing and screening testing for students, and criticized officials for failing to develop a program months ago.

At the meeting, Hutchings and other top officials said they had hoped to rely on a statewide student testing program, and faced a setback when state officials delayed the debut of that system until late fall.

“We don’t lack a testing program because the commonwealth didn’t deliver. We lack a testing program because our leadership failed to make a simple back up plan,” Hillis said. “ACPS likes to say officials are negotiating with a testing vendor. Now? Three weeks into school?”

Meanwhile in Arlington, Durán said the vaccine rule for student-athletes will take effect Nov. 8, the start of the winter sports season. That means the requirement will affect only students participating in winter and spring sports this academic year. The requirement is in place for high school athletes and for eighth-graders, he said, but not for middle-schoolers.

Students who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons will have to undergo weekly testing for the virus, Durán said.

Durán also apologized for the district’s rocky rollout of online learning for the approximately 700 students who chose to remain virtual this school year. Arlington, adopting a more lenient stance on the issue than some of its neighboring districts, allowed online learning for any families that preferred it. “No students who expressed interest were turned away,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said.

But Arlington had to add 63 students to the virtual program at the last minute in late August, after their families submitted medical exemption appeals, Bellavia said — which affected staffing and class sizes. Arlington had lined up about 90 teachers to lead its virtual program, but it turned out the school district required more than 100 online-only instructors for the 2021-2022 school year, he said.

As a result, Arlington officials were forced to place about 100 elementary students and 30 middle-school students into a “temporary class to work on asynchronous assignments developed by . . . teachers assigned to brick-and-mortar schools,” Bellavia said. He said that these children were monitored by an adult and that they will receive feedback on their asynchronous work this month. On Thursday, Durán said the issues with the learning program ultimately affected about 340 students, leading them to miss one or more classes.

Durán said that Arlington is working to fix the problem by hiring to fill its 15 vacant virtual teaching positions and that the school system has replaced the administrator who led the virtual program. He said the district also has allocated more staff for the virtual program with experience in logistics and special education. He promised the district would finalize learning plans for any secondary students whose schedules are still “incomplete” by Sept. 14.

“We know it is unacceptable how it started,” Durán said, “but we are working around-the- clock . . . to address these issues.”

Reunions, tough goodbyes as Fairfax County schools welcome students back to classrooms

In Fairfax, officials said Thursday that most employees have received vaccines as of Sept. 9. Of the 80 percent of contract staff who responded to a school survey, 97.3 percent reported full vaccination. Regular testing will begin in October for unvaccinated employees and for those who did not fill out the survey.

Officials also detailed how lunchtime will work going forward: Students will eat on staggered schedules. Schools will hold mealtime outdoors in tents and courtyards whenever possible, as well as inside large rooms including lecture halls.

Staff will erect Plexiglass to divide dining children whenever possible, and some children may eat on unusual makeshift furniture — such as yoga mats — to facilitate social distancing.