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Making Room: Rebuilding Faith in Arlington Public Schools

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

I am becoming a kindergarten parent this year and so I’m officially joining the Arlington Public Schools community. During the past 18 months, I’ve watched with sympathy as kids were kept out of school.

Arlington’s public schools were closed, or in a hybrid model, because elected leaders didn’t prioritize the mitigation strategies in our community that would have allowed safe in-classroom instruction. I was lucky to have my kids in full-time daycare for most of the pandemic. We were never exposed to Covid-19 from the center, despite limited mitigation practices.

I watched the Aug. 11 Return to School Town Hall with apprehension. For a school system that seemed incapable of prioritizing in-person learning or delivering on the obvious mitigation strategies to allow that to happen for over a year, I had lost a lot of hope. But my son is turning six soon and I have a philosophical and practical commitment to public education. I was prepared to trust the system and hope for the best. This town hall laid out a comprehensive plan to provide multiple layers of protection for students and staff at APS.

From the outset, Superintendent Duran unequivocally stated that APS will remain with five days of in-person instruction “unless the governor orders the schools to close.” To limit the disruption of quarantine, if a classmate tests positive close contacts will only be defined as anyone within 3 feet, or within 6 feet if both students aren’t wearing masks.

And APS is backing up this commitment with concrete mitigation strategies that address the Covid risk on multiple fronts:

  • Weekly testing of asymptomatic students through an opt-in program. This will take place at each school through a rapid antigen test, to detect asymptomatic cases before they spread
  • Mandatory vaccination or weekly testing of all APS employees (announced in conjunction with Arlington County’s policy after the Town Hall)
  • APS announced a universal mask mandate even before Governor Northam issues this for the entire state. Masks are readily available at each school for anyone to use
  • Certified air cleaning devices have been installed in every classroom, with the goal of delivering four to six air changes per hour. Opening windows is encouraged if the weather allows

Arlington staff should build on these plans to do even more to protect kids and maintain in-person learning:

  • Vaccines should be required for all eligible students
  • Outdoor lunch should be the norm, not just an option when it is most convenient. If staffing is a problem, call on parents to help
  • APS should distribute high quality masks for all children, staff and visitors
  • The facilities’ teams should continue to improve the ventilation and filtration of classrooms, especially for unvaccinated elementary students
  • APS should expand the definition of close contacts while the virus is spreading faster in the community and notify the entire class of a positive Covid test so families can opt to test and/or voluntarily quarantine

These steps would make in-person school safer and more sustainable as we wait for the delta variant to peak (which could occur as early as mid-September, according to some experts).

Every family will evaluate the risk and reward of in-person instruction in their own way. I was committed to sending my child to kindergarten even without these mitigation strategies. But knowing they are in place makes me confident that he is protected in the coming year.

If you haven’t yet registered your child for public school, there is still time. APS also has open slots in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a state-funded program to offer free early learning for children in low-income families.

For everyone who doesn’t have children, you can help make the school year successful by getting vaccinated and taking precautions to mitigate community spread. As we’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic, we are all in this together.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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