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Tensions Over Virtual and In-Person Education Boil Over in School Board Meeting

Thursday night was not a typical Arlington School Board meeting.

A contentious public comment period, during which Board Chair Monique O’Grady called for order multiple times, preceded news that Arlington Public Schools has launched school-based COVID-19 testing and preschoolers will gain access to four days of in-person instruction.

Six times, O’Grady addressed violations of the comment period, which included clapping, direct appeals to school board members, and an unseen man shouting down a speaker. She even threatened to “take other measures” if people kept disrupting the proceedings.

“We do appreciate hearing from all families, whether you’re happy or not, but we ask you that when you come into our board room that you please respect our rules and one another,” she said later in the meeting, which was preceded by a rally pushing for schools to add more in-person learning days this spring.

Tensions came to a head last night among parents who are asking APS to open schools fully, school board members and administrators, and other parents and advocates who want the school system to retain a virtual option.

Last night, administrators announced some new developments.

APS is rolling out on-site COVID-19 testing, which could allow some students exposed to COVID-19 in class to return sooner, said Zachary Pope, the director of emergency planning for APS. This new approach will be tested in the summer and could be implemented this fall.

Additionally, Superintendent Francisco Durán said preschool students can be in-person four days a week starting Monday, May 3 due to the federal guidance shortening social distancing from six feet to three feet. Students in certain special education programs are the only ones currently in person four days a week.

But many parents want to see four-day schedules for all students, not just those enrolled in specialized programs. They call for APS to follow the lead of Fairfax County Public Schools.

In Northern Virginia, the superintendents of Arlington Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools are sticking with two days a week of in-person students for the remainder of the semester, while Fairfax and Loudoun County public schools have allowed some students to access in-person education four days a week.

A spokeswoman for FCPS tells ARLnow the first students to get four days of in-person learning were those in most need of it, who may or may not have been in-person before. After they returned on April 6, wherever additional spots remained, school personnel reached out to students attending school in person twice a week and gave them the option of four-day, in-person schedules, depending on the number of staff and the size of each classroom.

APS is taking a different approach, Durán said. Rather than expand schedules to four days of in-person school for a limited number of students, he decided to expand access to two days of in-person education. Over the last month, nearly 1,800 students who were virtual started attending school two days a week where space allows.

Last night, parents calling for fully in-person schedules picked up where they left off earlier this month, calling for more days as well as the resignation of APS leaders.

Standing with her daughter, Sheila Leonard pleaded with the school board to allow hands-on arts, music and physical education experiences on in-person school days, and to open schools fully.

“Since July, Gov. Ralph Northam and the American College of Pediatrics have prioritized [special-education, English-language learners and K-2 students] but not APS. When will you stand up for our neediest children?” she said.

Next, Brittany Kitchen wondered whom the school board members are protecting in avoiding a full return.

“It’s not for the kids. It’s not for the teachers — they’re vaccinated. Who is it for, then? You, so you can sleep at night knowing you didn’t make a decision, so if something goes wrong, it’s not on you?” Kitchen said. “That’s not leadership, it’s cowardice.”

People clapped. O’Grady instructed attendees to wave their hands silently. Two more parents’ speeches are met with applause and O’Grady reiterated the rules.

Next, Aaron Asimakopoulos called for the removal of school board members and administrators.

“Who among you can honestly say you have fought to get our children back in school?” he said. “Your departure from APS would have absolutely zero effect on the outcome of a student’s outcome, except to remove a barrier.”

After O’Grady rebuked him for addressing her specifically, he told other board members to “show some spine.”

Eventually, Latina advocates Gabriela Uro and former school board member Tannia Talento came forward. They said the immigrant and Latino families they work with are more cautious about school since they have experienced disproportionate rates of financial burden, sickness and death during the pandemic.

“I’m offended at how our Latino students have been used as pawns in the argument to open to in-person learning,” Gabriela Uro said.

Her allotted time ran out and before O’Grady cut her off, a man in the background started yelling “Time!” Uro kept speaking and over both their voices, O’Grady told Uro her time is up.

Taking the podium, Talento noted that the only two superintendents in the region supporting hybrid for the rest of the year are superintendents of color. (ACPS Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. is Black.)

“I wonder if that’s a coincidence or the fact that they see the invisible people who do not have the privilege of multiple cars or working from home,” she said. APS data shows that students of color are opting for in-person learning at lower rates than white students. Likewise, economically disadvantaged students are opting for in-person learning at lower rates than average.

The public comment period ended with Nathan Zee telling the board it is “picking and choosing which parents [they’re] listening to.”

A final round of applause. O’Grady said nothing.

Later, Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said she has never seen this level of vitriol in public discourse, adding that she is seeing progress during and in between every meeting.

“To those of you who are angry, I hear you. We all hear you,” she said. “But my job is not only to listen to the voices of people who can stand at this podium and speak to us…who email us every day. My job is to make the best decision for all of our students and all of our staff given the information that we have.”

Images via APS 

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