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Opinion Fairfax, enough is enough: Open schools full-time

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand at Key Center in Springfield in February. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Rory Cooper is a political and corporate reputation strategist. He has three children enrolled in Fairfax County elementary schools.

This week, the D.C. area declared it would not fully reopen schools until the fall at the soonest. Arlington, Loudoun, Montgomery and Fairfax County made announcements, hoping to stem the tide of disenrollment and criticism. They have accomplished neither.

In January, Virginia teachers were moved into a high-priority group for vaccines. One would think that demanding and accepting this high prioritization would make these school systems sensitive to the responsibility it comes with. Alas, it did not. They want to write off the remaining three months of school, just as they wrote off the past year, and accept union-induced failure. And they will hide behind shifting and baseless guidance that ignores science, reality and the impact on children.

For example, districts are using as a crutch the arbitrary rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that distancing in schools requires six feet of separation. It now appears that the CDC will soon revise its guidance to three feet. Infectious diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci said as much on March 14, telling CNN that three feet is sufficient and that a change will come “soon.” So, the CDC will soon admit what it already knows.

In fact, some U.S. school districts are wisely ignoring the CDC and have been for a while, keeping their doors open five days a week. Fairfax and districts like it are just woefully behind two-thirds of America.

Hybrid learning was designed as a tool to reopen in the fall, and three-quarters of Fairfax County parents selected it for their children before the school board decided to lock kids out and then cynically offer the pre-vaccine hybrid plan as the post-vaccine plan six months later.

We were also told closed schools need funding for reopening. More than $50 billion remains unspent from 2020. And Congress just delivered an additional $126 billion for schools. Almost none of it will be spent this year, and yet it is marketed as a tool to reopen schools. Fine, ransom paid.

At some point, parents have to wonder if their public schools even want to be in the business of educating children. And many parents have already decided they don’t. Thousands of students have disenrolled from Fairfax County alone. Wait lists at area private schools are miles long for the fall and growing. Parents don’t trust the school board or administrators such as Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand to keep their word in the fall, and why would they?

It’s as if the Fairfax County School Board always makes the least informed decision. At our elementary school, the kids who are back two days a week are not allowed to use the playground equipment. They can only play on the blacktop next to the playground. The idea that swings and monkey bars are a coronavirus threat has been summarily dismissed since last year. But the school board seems incapable of learning new things.

Medical and public health experts are nearly unanimous on opening schools full-time now. David Rosen, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “There is no situation in which schools can’t be open unless they have evidence of in-school transmission.”

Mitul Kapadia, a director of pediatric physical medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said: “We do know now and know schools can open safely. Fear is guiding decisions even against the guidance and recommendations from the medical and public health community.”

And the list goes on and on.

I am not willing to wait until fall for five days a week, and neither are countless other parents. Spring break ends in the first week of April in Fairfax County. We should return full-time the day after and stay so for the remaining three months of school. Think about the incredible benefits of three months of full-time school before summer break. The school system can use the week of spring break for planning to avoid the “we need planning time” excuse. There’s no way school administrators have vacation plans, right?

Keep reasonable mitigation efforts such as masking and cohorts in place. Embrace robust rapid testing, which has worked very well where it’s been used. Families nervous about a return can use the online option.

As parents, we have to engage a national conversation about who controls our public schools. It’s not the parents; it’s unions that politically mobilize against the interests and needs of our children. Parents are treated like an inconvenient nuisance.

As for Fairfax County, Brabrand must fully open schools after spring break or be replaced by an administrator from one of the districts that has been fully open for months with far fewer resources. It’s embarrassing how far behind one of the best-funded districts in the United States has fallen.

Children have sacrificed so much this past year and, depressingly, have been an afterthought for much of it. Enough is enough.

Update: An earlier version of this essay indicated 66 percent of schools in the United States are open. That figure applies to schools that are fully open and open for a combination of in-person and remote education. This version has been updated.

Read more:

Henry Smith: I chose to go back to school on a hybrid schedule. My first day back was miserable.

Leana S. Wen: Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong

Catherine Rampell: Our students fell way behind this year. It’s time to start talking summer school.

Leana S. Wen: The CDC’s plan to reopen schools seems to prioritize expediency over teachers’ health

Khari Brown: Mentors can help D.C. students get back on track