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Washington-area schools inch toward reopening plans, stirring strong emotions among parents, teachers and students

Sixth-grade student China White gets her temperature taken by Director of Operations Ryan Abel as she arrives for classes at the Sojourner Truth Montessori Charter School in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

As coronavirus cases in the Washington region hit their lowest levels in months, area school systems are inching toward reopening and normalcy — pledging to gradually usher students back into classrooms, and onto sports fields, over the next several weeks.

In D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said that she hopes to bring a small number of students back to school by the end of September, and that she wants to offer all students the option to return part-time by Nov. 9, although she has yet to debut a plan for either goal. In Maryland, State Superintendent Karen Salmon on Thursday announced that fall sports would resume on Oct. 27.

And in Virginia, Loudoun County Public Schools, Arlington Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools — representing nearly 300,000 students combined — decided this past week to proceed with plans that will return several thousand children to school buildings starting in October. All three school systems are prioritizing returning students with disabilities, English-language learners and very young children.

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Meanwhile, Maryland’s largest school system, in Montgomery County, also took a first step toward in-person learning Friday evening, giving its labor unions a required 45-day notice. Superintendent Jack R. Smith said in a joint letter with union leaders that the notice did not mean in-person learning would begin in 45 days, but rather that it would open the way for bargaining and planning for an eventual return.

The goal is to phase in small groups of students for on-campus instruction during the first semester if health conditions permit, said spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala. She said the issue would be discussed at an Oct. 6 school board meeting.

Maryland state officials have been pressing for small groups of students to return for in-person instruction, and most Maryland school systems are planning for it.

Under a new Maryland requirement, school systems that opted for a full semester of all-virtual learning — including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — must revisit their plans at the end of the first quarter this fall. Staying all-remote for a semester would leave students in online learning through at least late January.

Prince George’s officials said this week that their semester-long all-virtual plan has not changed.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Salmon have been touring public schools around the state that have begun to bring children into classrooms. Their stop on Thursday was in Frederick County, where they lauded efforts at Waverley Elementary School and the Frederick County Career and Technology Center.

“We don’t want to rush, and we don’t want to bring back huge crowds — we don’t want to fill the schools — but we believe there are ways to go about things safely,” Hogan said.

In the District, the teachers’ and principals’ unions have pushed back against the mayor’s announcement that she wants to reopen schools soon, arguing that the buildings are not ready. The school system has said that it will check every HVAC system and make necessary upgrades before Nov. 9 but has not said how many buildings it has inspected so far.

On Friday afternoon, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee met with principals about reopening plans and how they will “receive detailed guidance and intensive technical assistance from central office teams to ensure health and safety measures are met,” according to the school system. But the chancellor said that nothing was definite and the meeting was only to prepare for a “potential” reopening on Nov. 9.

Still, Richard Jackson, head of the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership, said principals left the meetings unclear on what reopening plan they should be expecting and how they should prepare.

“People were more confused after the call than they were before it,” said Jackson, who was not on the call but heard feedback from principals afterward.

In an interview, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he thinks the moment is right to start opening schools back up: Fairfax health officials say the county is seeing a “low” transmission rate, and he’s eager to get children back inside classrooms for a form of learning that “nothing in the world can replace.” But he is also wary of moving too fast.

“Honestly, I feel sometimes like I’m in the middle of a Goldilocks fairy tale,” Brabrand said. “We don’t want to go too hot. We don’t want to go too cold. We want to do it just right: And just right is a measured approach starting with small cohorts of kids.”

The pivots toward brick-and-mortar schooling brought cheers of relief from some D.C.-area parents, especially those whose children have learning disabilities.

From the beginning of the pandemic, educators and experts warned that online learning simply would not work for special education students. Susan Edgerton, president of the advocacy group Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia and mother to two Fairfax County students, one of whom is autistic, said this prediction has proved accurate for many families in her group.

“It’s very sad,” Edgerton said. “Some kids are getting very frustrated, throwing things at the screen, acting out because they can’t see teachers and they don’t understand what’s happening.”

She called the new plan approved by the Fairfax School Board on Tuesday, to send hundreds of preschoolers with autism to school buildings by mid-October, “an important first step.”

Similar plans are underway elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Loudoun will return more than 800 children with disabilities to classrooms starting Oct. 13, and Arlington will permit roughly 300 students with disabilities to start learning inside schools four days a week beginning in mid-October.

Stockpiling cleaning supplies

School systems that have committed to a return are now stocking up on cleaning supplies and protective equipment. Fairfax has ordered face coverings for all students and teachers, plexiglass shields for every classroom and a two-month supply of cleaning and disinfectant supplies, Brabrand said.

Likewise, Loudoun County Public Schools has purchased cleaning chemicals, cloth face coverings, disposable gloves and gowns, face shields and N95 masks. The district will follow a strict regimen of mask-wearing and social distancing as children and employees reenter campuses.

“It’s definitely not going to be exactly the same type of in-person learning because of the public health mitigation strategies,” Loudoun Superintendent Eric Williams said. “But I’m still excited about it.”

Nonetheless, a key hurdle remains: Will teachers agree to instruct children in person?

That question is proving especially fraught in Fairfax, where controversy erupted over the issue at a school board meeting Tuesday. In his presentation to board members, the superintendent said the school system — which had previously asked teachers to choose between in-person and remote teaching — would be able to honor only the selections made by staff members who qualify for Americans With Disabilities Act accommodations.

Fairfax could provide no guarantees to employees who requested remote teaching positions because they have family members susceptible to the virus, are struggling to find child care or simply feel uncomfortable going back, Brabrand said. Some of these teachers would probably be asked to return, the superintendent continued — and, if they disliked it, they could either request a leave of absence or resign.

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The school board ultimately voted to soften Brabrand’s position, passing a motion that pressed pause on the superintendent’s proposal encouraging resignations. Instead, the board is requesting more data on staff teaching preferences.

In an interview, Brabrand defended his original suggestion.

“The reality of return-to-school, across all school districts,” he said, “is that if you’re going to bring kids back, you have to bring teachers back, too.”

A summer survey undertaken by the school district showed that slightly more than half of teachers — 52 percent — would prefer to keep teaching online. Becca Ferrick, president of the 1,300-member Association of Fairfax Professional Educators and a Fairfax high school teacher, is advocating for a more gradual return program, which would deliver smaller numbers of students back to classrooms over a longer period. She called the superintendent’s plan “disappointing.”

“The current plan is going to push a lot of really great teachers out the door,” Ferrick said. “I do feel bad for Dr. Brabrand and the school board — I know they want to do the right thing — but at this point, doing right by students seems to mean doing wrong by staff.”

Parents push for return

Many parents insist that virtual learning is not working, and that their children are suffering mentally and emotionally by spending so much time away from peers — not to mention the toll taken on mothers and fathers who are struggling to balance work with child care.

They also point to new research suggesting that schools that have reopened are not functioning as superspreading centers, as many analysts had feared. A Brown University study, published this past week, tracked cases at school systems nationwide and found extremely low levels of infection at places offering in-person learning: Just 0.078 percent of students have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and 0.15 percent of teachers.

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“I personally, if I made the rules, would be comfortable with five days a week at least for elementary kids, based on what I have read of the data we have,” said Virginia parent Miranda Turner, who has two children in Arlington Public Schools. “I think the evidence is generally favorable for a return.”

Some parents note that, although all major public school districts in the D.C. region have offered online-only learning since March, many school buildings have successfully reopened for nonschool activities.

In Montgomery County, hundreds of students are taking their Chromebooks to school every day to join small cohorts of their peers in “distance learning hubs” run by child-care providers. Loudoun has opened a handful of “Internet Cafes” inside schools: large spaces set up with tables six feet apart, at which students can use school Internet to access online classes. The program is meant to ensure all children get online.

And Fairfax invited thousands of high-schoolers to take the SAT inside school buildings last week. Local government officials also set up a child-care program inside schools.

All three initiatives have drawn complaints from parents who do not understand why schools can reopen for these programs, but not for actual school.

One of those feeling cheated is Fairfax parent Emily Belisle. Belisle has three children: a sixth-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner. She transferred her youngest to a private school offering in-person learning after she concluded remote school just wouldn’t work.

Belisle’s two sons, however, are struggling through online class — and she is deeply worried about its immediate and long-term effects.

Her sixth-grader was always the “sunshine guy” in the family, bubbly and bright. But at this point, deprived of a classroom filled with other kids for months on end, the boy is “withering, socially and emotionally,” Belisle said.

One recent morning, he woke up and said he just felt sad. When she asked why, he said he didn’t know. A resilient kid, the sixth-grader tried to suggest a cure.

“Maybe,” he told her, “on my screen break, I can go for a walk.”

Her second-grader, meanwhile, has taken to asking the same question every morning at the breakfast table.

“Mommy, when is my school going to open?” he says.

Belisle tells him she doesn’t know.