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APS sticks to in-person instruction amid Omicron concerns

Arlington Public Schools will open its doors for regular in-person instruction next week amid concerns about the Omicron variant and record-high rates of new Covid cases.

Buildings will open on Monday, Jan. 3 with normal schedules for in-person instruction and Extended Day programs, APS said in an email to families yesterday (Wednesday). Free COVID-19 testing at schools will resume Monday as well.

“I know there are many concerns about the spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant,” Superintendent Francisco Durán wrote. “I have received questions from staff and families about how the recent spikes affect our return to school. My priority remains to keep our schools safe and open for in-person instruction.”

As a precaution, however, APS will pause in-person athletics and extracurricular activities, starting today (Thursday) until Friday, Jan. 14.

“Limiting non-essential in-person gatherings as we return is one measure to keep school open for instruction,” Durán said. “We will revisit this and provide an update on or before Jan. 14.”

In the last seven days — which includes the holiday break — there have been 74 student COVID-19 cases and 37 employee cases reported to APS, according to the school system’s coronavirus dashboard.

Under Virginia law, APS can only revert to virtual learning temporarily for a classroom or school after consulting with Arlington’s health department, should there be elevated COVID-19 transmission levels in a classroom or school, the announcement said.

As Covid cases rise, some Maryland schools have reverted to online education, while D.C’s public school system is requiring every student and teacher to report a negative rapid antigen test before returning next week.

In response to these changes, Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin told WJLA he will not support virtual instruction or mandate masks for kids.

“I believe children need to be in the classroom five days a week,” Youngkin said. “And I also believe we can in fact balance the needs of our children with the health and safety of our children. And I don’t believe that mandating masks in school is the right way. I believe in making sure we have protocols when children don’t feel well that we in fact don’t have to send them home the entire time. That we can in fact allow them to pursue their education in a different facility or a different place in the school building.”

Teachers and some parents, for different reasons, are pushing back against the APS plans.

A tweet saying that “pausing activities and sports in Arlington makes zero sense” received a dozen retweets and more than 30 likes, a notable amount of engagement for a local post on Twitter.

The Arlington Education Association (AEA), which represents APS teachers, said in a statement early Thursday morning that the school system should either provide testing to everyone returning to schools or go virtual-only until Jan. 18.

“Despite a lack of testing capacity, Covid-19 infection rates are setting local, state, and national records with no peak in sight. APS is about to return to full-day instruction with no reasonable, testing plan to ensure educators spending hours in close contact are not infected,” AEA said. “APS must acquire more testing capacity to safely return to schools on January 3rd. The AEA calls on APS to provide testing to every student and staff member prior to returning to the classroom and/or remain virtual until January 18, ensuring mitigations are in place resembling our neighbors in the DMV area.”

The statement, from AEA President Ingrid Gant, also questions existing plans for serving lunch to students.

No testing and mitigation plan can compensate the fact that APS serves two meals a day where students and staff are unmasked, in close contact during those periods. While lunch mitigation plans may have worked in fall weather, APS is embarking on a system wide super-spreader event during the first cold and/or rainy days upon return,” the statement said. “Indoor lunch, even among asymptomatic students and staff are significant risks (and one risk too many). At this time APS has no efficient way to mitigate consistently.”

“It is apparent that only our educators continue making the ultimate sacrifice, while being reminded ‘We are all in this together!'” the statement concluded.

Meanwhile, Arlington Parents for Education — a local parent group founded during the pandemic to call for in-person instruction — is pushing to keep school buildings open, despite no announced APS plans to close any schools.

“As an organization, we stood for in-person school last year, and we stand for it again now,” APE said in a statement last week. “Students belong in school. Closing school buildings did nothing to reduce or mitigate spread the first time we tried it and caused extensive harm that has yet to be remedied.”

The full message from Superintendent Durán is below.

Dear APS Families,

I hope that you are enjoying the winter break and look forward to welcoming students back to school on Monday, January 3. I know there are many concerns about the spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant. We are monitoring these developments closely, and I want to take a moment to update you on our health and safety measures as we prepare for a strong start back to school in 2022.

I have received questions from staff and families about how the recent spikes affect our return to school. My priority remains to keep our schools safe and open for in-person instruction. We will open our doors as planned on Jan. 3 and continue to adhere to CDC and VDH guidance for operating safely and reducing COVID-19 spread in schools. We will open with regular in-person schedules and our Extended Day program will also operate on the normal schedule.

As we prepare to do so, here are important reminders and updates on steps we are taking, and what we can continue to do together as a community, to keep our schools safe and open.

Mitigation Measures: We continue to adhere to CDC and VDH guidance for reducing COVID-19 spread — this includes encouraging vaccination for everyone who is eligible, offering regular screening and testing, requiring universal masking in schools, and encouraging daily health screening and staying home when sick. This also includes limiting non-essential gatherings and events, and continuing outside lunch, weather permitting. We anticipate there will continue to be higher rates of positive cases following the break and will partner with the Arlington County Public Health Division on monitoring, contact tracing investigations and COVID response measures that align with current CDC guidance.

New CDC Guidelines for Quarantine Following Exposure: On Dec. 27, the CDC provided an update reducing the recommended quarantine period from 10 days to five days for fully vaccinated individuals and revised the definition for full vaccination. APS will adhere to the new guidelines, and we have posted a graphic outlining the revised procedures online. To be considered fully vaccinated under the new guidelines, individuals must have received a booster in addition to the two initial doses of vaccine, if it has been more than six months since they received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or if it has been more than two months since receiving the J&J vaccine.

Test to Stay: Test to Stay is one recommendation provided by the CDC; however, VDH has not adopted this guidance at this time and is piloting this methodology with selected schools across the Commonwealth. APS indicated in the Fall that we are willing to be a pilot participant but we were not selected for the pilot program at this time.

Weekly FREE Screening COVID Testing Program Resumes Jan. 3 — Opt-In Now: APS will resume free, optional weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing as a preventative health measure in our schools — this is available for both staff and students regardless of vaccination status. We have transitioned to a new vendor — CIAN Diagnostics — which requires everyone to resubmit consent forms. I strongly encourage parents/guardians to sign up now as this has proven to be a highly effective strategy for early detection of asymptomatic positive cases. The consent forms and more information are available online. As a reminder, the Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance (ViSSTA) program for surveillance testing is an opt-in only program per Virginia guidelines.

Diagnostic, Symptomatic Testing: APS has been operating expanded hours for symptomatic testing via ResourcePath at Kenmore throughout the break. This is in addition to the many other sites the County offers. Keep in mind that appointments are strongly encouraged at this time and some walk-in availability has changed, due to holiday volumes and the recent spike and omicron variant.

Pausing In-Person Athletics, Extracurricular Activities Effective Dec. 30-Jan. 14: As a precaution, APS will pause in-person athletics and extracurricular activities, including practices, competitions, performances, clubs, theater, band, orchestra and chorus, and Career and Technical student organizations effective tomorrow, Dec. 30, through Jan. 14. Virtual activities may continue. Limiting non-essential in-person gatherings as we return is one measure to keep school open for instruction. We will revisit this and provide an update on or before Jan. 14.

To ensure the safety of students and staff, we will continue to closely monitor transmission rates and implement recommended strategies to operate safely. State law in Virginia requires all public schools to offer in-person instruction to students during the 2021-22 school year and that remains our priority. Per this law, APS will only revert to remote instruction for a classroom or school in consultation with the health department in the event of high levels of COVID-19 transmission within a classroom or school and only on a temporary, limited basis.

It is imperative that everyone does their part. Please do not send your student(s) to school if they are sick and complete the screening process daily. We all want the same outcomes — to keep school safe and open for our students and to ensure our community is as safe as possible.

Thank you for your ongoing partnership and support.

Sincerely,

Dr. Francisco Durán
Superintendent

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