Arlington, VA

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

The pandemic has shown us that reopening schools safely should not be left solely to school districts. Local governments have a critical role to play both financially and logistically in helping with reopening.

On March 2, APS began a phased return of additional students for the hybrid in-person option two days per week, since Level 1 students returned on November 4.

For nearly an entire year since schools closed, our County Board members have been either silent, reluctant to engage on reopening, or have been outright dismissive when pressed for their involvement in helping APS with the necessary infrastructure to ensure a safe return to schools. Their callous responses that reopening schools is not their responsibility and not within their legal authority — while technically accurate — is morally wrong. It is outrageous.

While virtual learning is working well for some students, it isn’t for many others. Some students are suffering mentally, emotionally, and academically. The most vulnerable students are losing ground they may never regain. The academic and economic impact of nearly one year of school closings on these families is dire and may be lifelong. While APS and the school board bear the responsibility for reopening schools, the failure of our County Board to help stem this tide of inequity is an abdication of its moral responsibility.

The real blame for the tepid COVID response lies with the federal government, but where national and state governments fail, local governments must step up, improvise, and lead. Schools alone cannot bear this burden and it is shameful that our County Board has turned its back on our students.

A global pandemic requires all hands on deck, and our county leaders neglected to do their part to take all reasonable and feasible measures to contain community spread. Over the past year, there is so much more they could have done in addition to food distribution — that they were asked to do — to help our schools reopen sooner. They simply ignored the pleas.

They could have enforced mask-wearing in crowded public spaces, but they failed to. They could have enforced social distancing in public spaces and outdoor dining areas, but they failed to. They could have required appropriate ventilation inside restaurants and bars, but they failed to. They could have limited capacity, alcohol, and operating hours in bars on popular nights like New Year’s Eve but they failed to.

Moreover, the county could have partnered with APS to provide COVID-19 testing and nurses so our schools could reopen long before now, but they failed to. They could have provided supervised indoor and outdoor spaces for virtual learning, but they failed to. They could have formed public-private partnerships with corporations, churches, and other organizations to assist with childcare needs and space, but they failed to.

On February 23, Virginia declared racism a public health crisis (HJ 537). This should come as no surprise. Black residents are dying at higher rates than whites from COVID-19 and Latino residents are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than whites.

Despite damning data that Arlington is one of six jurisdictions nationwide with the largest disparities in case fatality rates between Black individuals and white individuals, our county has not taken aggressive or decisive action to address these inequities like other jurisdictions have.

It is beyond frustrating that despite having a Health Equity Task Force the county seems to be wringing its hands and dragging its feet on implementing an equitable distribution action plan like taking the vaccine to residents who are most at risk. This has a direct and adverse educational impact on Arlington’s most vulnerable students.

The fact that so many low income families have opted for virtual learning (see, e.g., Level 2 and October 2020 Surveys) can be attributed to the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on these communities. Many of these students live in multigenerational households, are being raised by grandparents or older family members, or have parents who are essential frontline workers or lack health insurance. The chance of contracting COVID-19 is too great a risk for them to take.

Prioritizing life under these circumstances over in-person learning is survival more than it is “choice.” If the county prioritized vaccinating elderly and at-risk residents in affordable housing developments and Black neighborhoods, maybe more families whose children desperately need in-person learning would opt to return for hybrid.

What is being ignored by the county is the devastating and long-term financial impact of school closures on these residents. A recent study estimated that if schools were to close for a full year, high-school freshmen living in the poorest communities would experience a 25 percent decrease in their post educational earning potential. This will necessarily result in an increased financial burden for the county as its social services and penal systems will overload.

The inability of our county leaders to connect these dots is a dereliction of stewardship and an abandonment of the equity resolution they give lip service to. This is how they perpetuate structural racism.

If the governor signs SB 1303 mandating in-person learning, it will be imperative for the County Board to put students over politics, take effective measures to contain community spread, vaccinate vulnerable populations, and support APS in every possible way for a full reopening this Fall. We need to pressure them to implement equitable vaccine distribution now. Our children deserve better.

By failing to make APS a priority during this pandemic, the County Board members should be vulnerable for reelection. COVID-19 is a crisis we cannot control, but if we choose wisely at the ballot box, we can hopefully avoid another crisis of leadership.

Symone Walker is an Arlington Public Schools parent and federal attorney. She is an At Large Executive Committee Member of the Arlington NAACP and Co-Chair of the Education Committee. She serves on the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee, Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Equity and Excellence, School Resource Officer Working Group, Destination 2027 Task Force, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Community Advisory Board. She is a former candidate for the Arlington school board.

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