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Northern Virginia schools want to send kids into classrooms again. Will teachers come back, too?

A second-grader enrolled in Arlington Public Schools participates in virtual learning in April. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

As schools in Northern Virginia make plans to usher children back inside classrooms, a major question is coming swiftly to the fore: Will teachers return, too?

In Fairfax County Public Schools, Arlington Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools — all of which have promised to return thousands of special education students, English language learners and young children to school buildings over the next few weeks — the answer appears to be no for a significant portion of the teaching staff.

Teachers’ unions in all three districts, which together enroll nearly 300,000 students, are deploring the return plans as unclear, ill-conceived and insufficient to keep teachers safe during the pandemic. Educators are asking for more comprehensive cleaning, coronavirus reporting and contact tracing protocols. And they are arguing that school officials should slow down the return-to-school timeline.

“What would happen if a student or employee develops covid? We’re not sure,” said Sandy Sullivan, president of the 3,800-strong Loudoun Education Association. “It just seems there are a lot of balls up in the air with no clear answers.”

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In response, school administrators are insisting teachers must return to the classroom if they cannot prove that medical necessity — such as a preexisting condition — requires they remain home. Their other options are unpaid leave or the loss of their jobs.

Arlington Public Schools recently sent an email to employees asking them to indicate whether they preferred working in-person or remotely, according to spokesman Frank Bellavia, then outlining “how to apply to an accommodation . . . for teleworking, as well as how to apply for leave.” Around the same time, the Fairfax school system delivered a similar message to roughly 650 staffers.

These educators — who teach special education, English language learning, elementary and career and technical education students — opened an email on Sept. 30 informing them that in-person teaching would start within the next few weeks. So that principals could plan appropriately, Fairfax officials wrote, teachers must respond within a few days by indicating which of a series of bullet-pointed options they planned to take.

The first bullet suggested returning as asked. The second allowed teachers whose “personal health condition . . . makes you high risk” to submit accommodation requests under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The third suggested taking “an unpaid leave of absence for the balance of the school year.” Another proposed a temporary leave “for childcare reasons” before ultimately returning to in-person instruction. And the last bullet point read simply: “Resign or retire.”

Kimberly Adams, president of the 4,000-member Fairfax Education Association, said she has never seen such strong-arm tactics in her 21 years in education — not just in Fairfax but also around the country. She has never seen administrators so willing to “sacrifice staff and take that loss,” and she has never seen teachers so upset.

“Our organization has had calls from members who are in tears, members who are frustrated to the brink of a breakdown,” Adams said. “We’ve even had to call for help for a member who we feared was in crisis. For us, something like this has never been seen.”

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Campuses in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington have all been shuttered since March. After much contentious discussion over the summer, and some false starts, all three school systems opted for a virtual start to the 2020-2021 school year (except for a handful of career and technical students in Loudoun).

But last month, as coronavirus cases in the region either held steady or declined, the heads of the three divisions took steps toward reopening. Fairfax, which enrolls 189,000, announced it would bring a total of 4,000 students back to classrooms by late October.

Loudoun, which instructs 82,000 students, said that it would return some children with disabilities to classrooms starting Oct. 13 and that it would add roughly 7,000 kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders for two days a week of in-person instruction on Oct. 27. Arlington, which enrolls 27,000, announced it would bring 300 children with disabilities back to bricks-and-mortar school by mid- to late October.

Now, many in Northern Virginia fear the situation is building to a crisis. If schools stick to a hard-line position on return plans, and if fearful teachers decide to prioritize their own health and that of their family members, schools could see a serious depletion in their workforces, teachers in all three school systems warned.

Adams said she is expecting resignations by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Based on social media posts and calls her association has received, she estimates that between 50 and 100 of the first 650 Fairfax teachers asked to return have already requested a leave of absence or chosen to resign, in lieu of coming back to face-to-face schooling.

Asked about the number of leave-takers and resignations, Fairfax spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said, “We do not have this figure for you at this time.” But she added the school system had received more than 2,200 “covid-19 related requests for reasonable accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act” so far, representing an 8,000 percent increase from last year. Nearly 1,000 of these have been “accommodated,” Caldwell said, and the rest are still being processed. (Fairfax employees roughly 24,700 full-time staffers.)

“Honestly, right now the situation is we don’t have enough employees who are willing to return in order to enact this phase-in plan,” said Becca Ferrick, president of the 1,300-strong Association of Fairfax Professional Educators. “By forcing them to make this choice, the issue may become one where FCPS simply doesn’t have enough employees on the payroll anymore in order to enact any sort of plan.”

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Loudoun Education Association president Sullivan said she doubts the school system will be able to field sufficient staff to instruct the thousands of kindergartners and second-graders slated to return to classrooms at the end of October. Asked about staffing concerns, Loudoun spokesperson Rob Doolittle said the school system “has not experienced a spike in resignations or requests for leave without pay in advance of the return to in-person learning.”

In Arlington, the teachers’ education association has published a petition calling for the school to remain online-only through the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. Asked whether the school system will have enough employees to complete its return-to-school program, Bellavia said officials have “not yet articulated a requirement to return in-person to anyone, therefore we have not received any requests for leave based on that.”

Still, some teachers already back in the classroom are trying to encourage their colleagues to follow their lead. Jan Rayl, interim director of the Fairfax County school of practical nursing, has been back in the classroom, teaching masked high school juniors and seniors the basics of nursing, since the middle of this week.

It’s working well, she said: The desks are six feet apart, everyone wears face coverings 100 percent of the time, and students stand outside or in the hall holding socially distant conversations during breaks.

“I say to them, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re practicing to take care of patients,’ ” said Rayl, 63. “‘If you can’t be socially distant here, how would you expect to take care of patients in a hospital?’”

But to teachers’ unions, a return is untenable until school systems meet highly specific criteria. In Arlington, for example, the Education Association is asking for all buildings to be equipped with “HVAC Merv-13 filters,” and that all staffers receive “Medical Grade PPE.” In Loudoun, Sullivan said, teachers need to see much more comprehensive cleaning protocols, among other items.

And in Fairfax, the issue of whether students will wear masks on the bus is proving contentious. Recently released guidelines permit students to ride buses without face coverings.

In response, staffers have written a letter urging Fairfax administrators to change the policy. “Allowing unmasked students to board endangers drivers, attendants and as many as 24 other student riders,” the letter reads.

Fairfax spokeswoman Caldwell said Fairfax’s protocols have been “approved by health officials” and that the school system is taking all appropriate precautions.

“Obviously, many of our students are children and as such, they may inadvertently lose the mask while walking to school or otherwise destroy it,” she said. “Additionally, some of our students have intellectual or developmental conditions which prevent them from being able to wear a face covering . . . our policy allows for these possibilities.”

As the heated battles play out in public, one Arlington teacher is consumed in equally fraught private debates. His partner is high-risk for the coronavirus, and the teacher — who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from school officials — is terrified of what will happen if he is forced to return to the classroom.

Taking unpaid leave is a financial impossibility, he said. And he cannot afford to forgo his health benefits, amid a deadly pandemic. If asked, he knows he will have to go back.

“We would try our best to socially distance from each other,” he said of his partner, “but I really don’t know what that would look like — locking each other in different rooms? Not being in the kitchen at the same time?”

“I don’t think there’s been another time in my life where I’ve felt I basically did not have a choice,” he said.