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Arlington School Board Asks Superintendent for More ‘Aggressive’ Return Plan

Some Arlington School Board members are putting pressure on administrators to get more students inside school buildings more often.

Arlington Public Schools has finished a month-long process of phasing students into school buildings for a hybrid, two-day-per-week model of in-person learning. Currently, about 35% of students are still fully virtual, and some of them are on waitlists for in-school instruction.

Some School Board members told Superintendent Francisco Durán on Thursday that they want more students in classrooms, as well as more than two days a week of in-person instruction, in light of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC halved its social-distancing guidelines from six feet to three feet among students in classrooms.

Durán previously said that APS would conclude the spring semester in the hybrid model.

In response to the new guidance, Durán told School Board members that APS will admit some waitlisted students into buildings, prioritizing those learning English, receiving special education services, or at risk of failing grades 8 and 12.

Citing logistical and instructional hurdles, however, APS will not be increasing the number of days students can be in-person based on the new guidance, he said. It will use the guidance to work toward five days of in-person instruction for summer school and the fall, he said.

“I have received many calls over the past week — since the beginning of the guidance we received — asking us to revise our model and provide four to five days of in-person instruction,” Durán said. “I certainly understand those calls and the disappointment many people are feeling in wanting to get back more days in-person.”

Under the new guidance, buses could transport up to 22 students, or one in every row, where it currently seats 11 students, one every other row. Inside classrooms, every classroom could theoretically increase the size from 12 to 14 students. Staff said such changes would require redrawing bus routes for the entire school system and true capacity would vary by classroom and school building.

Doing so would take staff away from the task of carrying out the hybrid model that APS just finished rolling out, he said.

“This change is not a simple change that can just happen quickly when you think of all the things that need to happen,” he said. “Planning for five days in the summer and fall is something is something that we will be doing.”

Board Vice-Chair Barbara Kanninen said Thursday’s presentation tells the community that APS is coming up with excuses not to do something hard.

“When we let students into school, we certainly don’t let them say, ‘This is hard,'” she said. “We start asking them to get started with something — to try something. I believe that our staff does have a can-do spirit but I’m not hearing it this evening.”

She and Reid Goldstein said by the next meeting, they want to see a new plan that gets more students in-person for more days.

“We’ve all been saying all along that in-person is the best method; now, opportunities have widened and we need to leverage those opportunities as best we can,” Goldstein said. “Logistical challenges don’t mean that today’s status quo is immutable. We need to do our best to balance logistical challenges with new opportunities to bring more students back to buildings.”

Board member David Priddy said he is pleased to see waitlisted students are being prioritized, but “we should take it a step further and plan for more days in-person than just two.”

Before the CDC released new guidance, principals were already admitting students from the waitlists, Durán said. Since opening, elementary schools have admitted 3,500 students off the waitlists, and “there are few students on most waitlists at this time,” he said.

Arlington Parents for Education, a pro-reopening group, urged School Board members to vote on an “urgent and rapid return to school plan” when they meet again — or propose “a vote of no confidence” in the superintendent.

“We commend the School Board Members for pushing back on this utter lack of creativity, planning and determination to get more students more time in-person as soon as possible,” APE said. “This is an emergency for your students, let’s act like it.”

Smart Restart APS, a group that advocates for a more cautious approach to bringing students back, welcomed the news that Durán will stick to the hybrid plan.

“Thank you [Superintendent Durán] for adding waitlisted kids to hybrid, but not going 100% occupancy until issues (outdoor lunch/common areas, testing, air, etc.) are addressed,” the advocacy group said in a series of tweets. “Tonight’s update shows leadership to apply CDC’s revised advice and to set a fall [target].”

Photos via Arlington Public Schools

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