Arlington, VA

(Updated at 9:20 p.m.) At long last, some children in Arlington Public Schools were able to walk the halls and see their teachers.

Wednesday was the first day of in-person school for about 230 children with disabilities in 33 APS buildings and programs, and administrators were happy to see them back. The day went smoothly, from health and safety protocols to transportation and technology operating as planned, said Superintendent Francisco Durán.

“We were very excited to welcome our first group of students back for in-person learning,” Durán said. “Principals and staff at each school enthusiastically welcomed our students as they arrived and helped ensure a safe and successful transition.”

But the scene may be bittersweet for some of the PreK, early elementary, and career and technical education students — and parents. Those students were initially slated to return next Thursday, but APS decided return dates set for 2020 would be delayed until 2021 due to rising cases.

The news was announced in an email from Durán on Monday, but he informed parents last Tuesday that delays should be expected.

“We continue to see the case incidence rate in our area increasing, not decreasing,” Durán wrote. “Level 2 comprises significantly larger numbers of students and staff. Moving too quickly to Level 2, while case levels are still rising, represents a safety risk and could cause further disruption to schedules.”

But on Wednesday morning, some smiles were evident through the masks.

On social media, scenes of students at schools prompted a response from a local group advocating for a return to in-person education.

“Can’t imagine how happy they are to be back,” tweeted Arlington Parents for Education. “Now onto the rest!”

Durán said pausing the plans allows APS to see if its mitigation measures are successful with the first group of students, and gives the school system more time to solidify staffing plans.

In a statement, Arlington Parents for Education said it will continue to advocate for students to return.

“At some point, we have to learn to live in a world where COVID-19 exists and children are allowed to attend school. There is no such thing as a zero-risk environment for anything,” the organization said. “Arlington’s children will feel the effects of this decision for years to come.”

In June, before a rise in cases later in the summer, only 10% of families that responded to an APS survey said they preferred an online-only start to the 2020-2021 school year.

The clamor from some parents for kids to return spilled over during a COVID-19 virtual update with County Board members last Friday. About 95% of questions from the public during the Q&A portion of the call concerned schools reopening, County Board member Katie Cristol said during the meeting.

“To the members of our community who are looking to the County Board to provide a different answer on school reopening than the one they’ve gotten from APS to date, we can resonate with that frustration,” Cristol said. “But I’m sorry, we’re not here to give you different answers than the ones you’ve gotten from Superintendent Francisco Durán and the School Board.”

She affirmed the school board’s jurisdiction over managing public schools.

“It keeps accountability with those who can make decision, and keeps decisions in partnership with the superintendent that have to do with students and workforce, groups of people that the County Board does not have as much insight into,” Cristol said.

Arlington County sent $10.15 million of its CARES Act funding to APS, including a $500,000 grant for providing home internet access to low-income households. Another $1.65 million went toward wireless network deployment and $340,000 went to food programs. The food programs also received $1.125 million from other sources of state and federal funding.

Photos courtesy APS

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