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Ed Talk: Reopening Schools

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

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued detailed guidance this week for the phased reopening of schools. Because each of the three phases includes six-foot social distancing in school and on buses, Arlington Public Schools (APS) will have to provide a hybrid model of education this fall, with limited in-person instruction, combined with online learning.

The Governor’s guidance for instruction is as follows:

  • Phase I – continues remote learning and allows in-person instruction for students with disabilities;
  • Phase II – adds limited in-person instruction for preschool through third grade and English learner students; and
  • Phase III – allows in-person instruction for all students, with new content taught.

While the timing of moving through these phases is not explicit, it appears that Phase II is intended for summer school and Phase III is anticipated for the fall.

APS class sizes are too large for social distancing. A recent report of the American Federation of Teachers on school reopening states that classes should have 12-15 students to maintain recommended social distancing. The APS 2019-20 Class Size Report shows average class sizes of 22 students for elementary schools, 21 students for middle schools, and 20 students for high schools.

APS does not have enough buses to maintain social distancing for students who ride the bus. An APS presentation on school opening estimates that school bus capacity will be reduced by 75% with social distancing. Given that more than 65% of students ride the bus, ridership would be cut from 18,942 students to 4,736 students in the fall, based on projected fall enrollment of 29,142 students.

Recognizing the impact of social distancing, the Governor’s guidelines offer sample school schedules for Phase III, with students attending school physically one or two full days per week, half-days four days per week, or two to three days per week every other week.

APS must determine how many hours per week each student can attend school for in-person education considering Arlington’s student enrollment, square footage of classrooms, and bus capacity. An additional consideration is the effect of COVID-19 on the APS workforce and how many teachers and staff will request to work remotely because of health considerations.

Another factor affecting the number of hours available for in-person instruction is the APS budget. The School Board’s adopted FY 2021 budget slashed expenditures by $55.6 million, compared with the interim Superintendent’s proposed budget. The budget lacks funding for more buses and drivers or for more teachers to reduce class sizes. In fact, the budget increases class sizes by one at each grade level, for a savings of $4.9 million.

Phase III school reopening in Arlington could have all students return to school for significantly reduced hours per week, or it could allocate the limited resource of in-person education in a different way.

The Governor’s guidance has a focus on equity and identifies “vulnerable” students who should receive targeted attention.  These include young learners, English learners, students with disabilities, those at risk of not moving to the next grade level or not graduating, and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

APS Superintendent Dr. Francisco Duran has convened a task force of parents, teachers, students and citizens to advise him in developing the APS reopening plan. Key to the task force considerations should be the APS core value of equity: “Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

Arlington has significant achievement gaps between groups of students, and these gaps are expected to increase as a result of school closures. Such disparities have long-term consequences, affecting post-secondary educational opportunities, jobs, and wages. Therefore, in-person education in Arlington this fall should focus on those students who need it the most.

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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