Lauren Downs teaches in Fairfax County Public Schools.

As a Fairfax County teacher, and after more than 300 days of teaching first grade from home, I am sad and frustrated.

It’s infuriating that the Fairfax Education Association and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers are blocking a return to the classroom. These organizations do not speak for all teachers in Fairfax County, including me, and they certainly do not serve the students of Fairfax County well. More than half of Fairfax County Public Schools-based employees do not belong to a union, yet these associations claim to be the voice of FCPS employees.

Private and parochial schools in Fairfax County and other public school systems in the greater metropolitan area have successfully returned to in-person school without community spread. The students, faculty and staff at those schools have taken the virus seriously. They require masks be worn at all times, practice social distancing and multiple other precautions. We don’t need to look far to see that kids can be back in school safely.

FCPS has put forth mitigation strategies to safely return students to in-person learning, and the district has the advantage of seeing what has worked well in other school districts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that with proper prevention methods schools can and should safely reopen.

So the question remains what is stopping us from making it happen.

The school year has been a challenge for teachers, students and parents alike. I am fortunate that most of my first-graders have adapted and their parents have been supportive, but it does not come close to a classroom experience.

When I scan the faces in the 21 Google Meet squares on my screen, I can see the yearning in some of their faces. They yearn for more interaction with their teachers and classmates. They yearn for socialization and the community of a classroom. Nothing replaces a child’s experience of walking into the classroom, seeing friends and sharing what is happening in their lives.

Every classroom, every student and every teacher is unique, and our kids are missing out on learning how to be a part of a community. School is not only about academics. Our kids learn how to make friends, how to get along with someone they don’t agree with and how to be themselves.

I know that academic success happens when a student and a teacher share a personal connection. A child who shares a personal connection with his or her teacher and fellow students is more likely to engage and retain the lessons. Virtual schooling inherently creates a separation that inhibits that success.

Additionally, I know that elementary school-aged children, in particular, learn best when they engage in hands-on materials. These hands-on materials allow children to use trial and error, to make mistakes and to learn from them. Children are able to experience how their peers might approach or solve the problem completely differently with the same materials. Without the community of a classroom, that experience can’t happen.

I am also the parent to two FCPS elementary schoolchildren. Managing their virtual instruction while instructing my classroom of students has been difficult.

Although most of the parents of my students chose virtual instruction for their children, I chose in-person instruction for my kindergartner and second-grader. Unfortunately, neither of my children has set foot in a classroom. While their teachers are doing an incredible job navigating virtual instruction, the impact of the experience on my children is heartbreaking to witness. My once-outgoing and witty kindergartner is now shy and hesitant. My second-grader desperately misses the in-school experience and struggles to get on the screen each morning.

Like many area parents, we’ve had to rely on others to assist with virtual instruction. When my husband isn’t taking time off his work to run between our two children’s desks, we have grandparents helping with virtual instruction.

We are fortunate. Many of our friends have had to hire someone to help their children’s education while they go to work. Some children are left home alone. Their parents have to work and don’t have the resources for outside help. Those are the children I worry most about.

In Fairfax County as of Thursday afternoon, there have been slightly more than 59,000 coronavirus cases resulting in about 788 deaths. Of those deaths, none has been a child aged 0-17.

The Fairfax County School Board and elected leaders in Virginia need to start listening to science and start listening to all of the teachers, not just one special interest group claiming to represent us.

It’s time to return to the classroom.

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