Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

There is a new reality for students, families, teachers, staff, and school leaders: K-12 schools are closed through the end of the academic year, as ordered by Virginia’s Governor.

With this new reality, what are the priorities, challenges, and opportunities for Arlington Public Schools (APS) students?

Nutrition

As of October 2019, APS had more than 8,000 students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. That is 29% of the student population – a percentage that will increase as parents are laid off and lose jobs. Ensuring that Arlington youth have nutritious meals daily is a top priority.

APS is providing free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for all Arlington youth ages 2-18 on Mondays through Fridays available for pick up between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Kenmore Middle School and Barrett, Campbell, Drew, and Randolph elementary schools. For next week’s spring break, a week’s worth of food was made available in advance. Beginning on April 13, Hoffman-Boston and Key elementary schools will be added to the sites offering these meals. The federal government recently waived the requirement that students be present to receive these meals.

APS staff are to be commended for quickly putting this food distribution system in place. However, not all families who need support can access one of these five sites. Across the country, and in neighboring jurisdictions such as Fairfax and Loudoun counties, school buses are being used to provide food to students in their own neighborhoods.

APS should consider expanding its food distribution to include schools buses. In time, school buses also might be used to distribute other items, like school supplies and books, for children in need.

Mental Health and Safety

Another top priority, especially now, is mental health and safety. Families are facing the stress of job losses and managing work with children at home full-time. There is the fear of loved ones becoming infected with the virus.

In these stressful times, child abuse and neglect as well as domestic violence may increase — putting children more at risk. APS has 125 school counselors, 38 psychologists, and 31 social workers serving our more than 28,000 students. In normal times, these dedicated staff is stretched thin. These are not normal times. The County and schools should work together to ensure that students and families are receiving the support that they need.

Learning

Students, their families, and teachers are adjusting to distance learning.

In a March 26 update, APS states that students on track to graduate as of the end of the third quarter will be able to graduate. In addition, students in good standing as of that time will move to the next grade level. During the fourth quarter, students with failing grades will receive assistance to help them improve and advance to the next grade level. These are important priorities.

We know that there are significant disparities in student achievement for different groups of APS students. With distance learning, these gaps will widen. Distance learning cannot replicate what happens in the classroom, and the layers of support that APS offers at school. When the next academic year begins, APS will need to have plans in place to address this.

Priority also must be given to special education students. How are their individualized educational plans (IEPs), and the learning accommodations included in IEPs, being implemented through distance learning? While all parents are struggling with how to support their children’s learning at home, this is a particular challenge for parents whose children have special needs.

Despite the limitations and challenges of distance learning, there are opportunities. The Standards of Learning (SOL) tests have been canceled for this year. Time spent teaching students to pass these tests might be spent instead in fostering creativity, critical thinking, and skills like empathy.

Collaboration

Collaboration among APS, Arlington County Government, non-profit organizations, and local businesses has never been more important to address students’ nutritional, mental health and safety, and learning needs.

In addition, how can APS resources assist in meeting the community’s needs during the coronavirus pandemic? One possibility is providing childcare for emergency hospital staff, if needed, at elementary school buildings with APS Extended Day staff.

The Arlington community coming together in creative ways to support our students, families and emergency workers can be a bright spot in this new reality.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance.

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