Reopening APS schools safely no later than the first day of the spring semester, for our youngest students (K-5), should be a top priority for the Arlington County government.
APS must do more to make the air in classrooms safe so schools can open — and stay open. Arlington County needs to step up and provide APS with the necessary funding and technical assistance.
It’s particularly important to develop a detailed plan now to move our youngest learners (K-5) back into safe classrooms because there’s lots of evidence that they are the ones who suffer the most from an all-virtual environment.
During our health emergency, County government must exercise its existing local regulatory authority to impose Arlington-specific limits on indoor activities where the virus thrives, e.g., indoor gatherings, dining, bars, and gyms. If necessary, Arlington’s new ordinance should be more stringent and remain effective longer than Governor Northam’s November 16 statewide order.
Otherwise, it will not be safe for APS to provide in-person instruction.
Air is the Issue
For months, our County and school leaders have lacked sufficient urgency and focus to tackle the primary problem: the COVID-19 virus spreads through the air.
Experts in aerosol physics, chemistry, engineering, and public health have defined clear strategies to thwart airborne transmission. But in a recent 29-page APS report, air quality was mentioned but once. County officials are watching cases rise, but they must do more about it.
As the case count has risen, Arlington has risen into the “highest risk” schools’ category according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If all elementary school students returned today, too many employees would soon be out sick or in quarantine. Safe, in-person operation is becoming impracticable.
APS should begin giving a biweekly “Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) report” to show a new focus on air quality. Classrooms need six air changes per hour of new, outside air coming in. APS has been working on HVAC improvements — including upgrading to MERV-13 filters to catch any virus floating in HVAC ducts. County funding is critical.
For additional ventilation, APS could place kids in rooms with windows. An open window can add more than 20 air changes! APS could use empty secondary schools (while older students are virtual), or even County recreation centers if needed. APS and the County should publish an inventory of spaces with windows.
The County should also help with extra safety equipment, which might cost as little as $500-$1,500 per classroom, for the limited number of K-5 students returning in early 2021 (if we act now).
All APS classrooms should be equipped with carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors, to give staff real-time information about air quality. Even with masks on, risks increase with time indoors. CO2 meters can alert when exhaled breath is building up.
Portable HEPA air cleaning units could filter virus particles from the air, two to five times hourly. Investments in such equipment would pay off beyond the pandemic — by improving indoor air quality, reducing other illnesses, and boosting student achievement.
Preventing “Super-Spreader” Events
Students should eat lunch outside. There is too much risk in removing masks indoors. Dining inside restaurants doubles the odds of catching COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Moving lunch — and some class time — outdoors could require tents, heaters, mats, chairs, tables, or even the use of park pavilions near schools. The County should help. APS should instruct schools to utilize outdoor spaces uniformly, systemwide.
APS needs a robust, in-school, free, testing program, to identify asymptomatic outbreaks. A student or staff member who goes home with the virus is likely to infect other household members within five days. The reluctance to plan for more testing in schools is difficult to understand. Arlington could also implement sewage system monitoring, to track additional data and be able to warn the community.
“Super-spreader” events also happen elsewhere — like recent Halloween festivities, and threaten the ability of schools to stay open. Accessible testing — and support from County contact tracers — is needed.
We’ve known what needs to be done for months. If we care about our community’s youngest learners, APS and County government have no more time to delay. The time for action is now.
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.