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Amina Luvsanchultem and her family receiving the college scholarship from Amazon (photo courtesy of Amazon)

Amazon surprised a Washington-Liberty student with a $40,000 college scholarship and a paid internship with the company earlier this week.

An Amazon engineer showed up at the door of W-L senior Amina Luvsanchultem on Monday (April 11) with a surprise Amazon Future Engineer scholarship, the company announced in a press release.

The $40,000 scholarship will go towards her studying computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) next fall. Additionally, she’ll take on a paid internship with Amazon after her freshman year in college.

A video from the company shows Luvsanchultem answering the door and being in understandable shock while being greeted with the news.

Luvsanchultem is a first-generation Mongolian-American student who hopes to work at NASA one day, Amazon said. She also founded the organization Students for Racial Equity, which works with students, parents, and educators to better understand how race, cultural, and linguistic diversity impacts Arlington classrooms.

The Amazon scholarships were aimed at high school seniors from “underserved and historically underrepresented communities.” Recipients were chosen based on academic achievement, demonstrated leadership, participation in school and community activities, work experience, future goals, and financial need.

Of the 250 scholarships (totaling $10 million) handed out by Amazon, 18 were to students from the D.C. region. Luvsanchultem was the only student from Arlington to receive a scholarship.

More than 70% of recipients identified as Black, Latino, and Native American while half identity as women, Amazon notes.

Construction on the first phase of Amazon’s HQ2 in Pentagon City is coming along while, earlier this month, the second phase of the headquarters was approved by the county’s Planning Commission ahead of County Board consideration.

Rising high school seniors can apply for next year’s round of Amazon Future Engineer Scholarships when the application opens again in the fall. Requirements include completion of an Advanced Placement computer science course in high school, the intent to pursue a computer science degree at a four-year school, and a teacher recommendation.

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A woman holding an Apple iPad (file photo)

(Updated at 4 p.m.) Oakridge Elementary students are no longer allowed to take their school-issued iPads home due to reports of “inappropriate use.”

The policy will be in place “for the foreseeable future,” Principal Lynn Wright told families in a School Talk email, after “teachers, students and families have shared that iPads are being used inappropriately outside of school hours.”

“Please remind your children that the iPad is a learning tool specific to school assignments,” Wright wrote.

Word of the email comes a day after Arlington County police were dispatched to the school for a report of “pornography” on a student’s iPad. ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said no one was arrested or charged following the report.

“At approximately 10:39 a.m. on March 24, police were dispatched to the 1400 block of 24th Street S. for the report of a juvenile incident,” she told ARLnow. “The investigation determined no crime had occurred.”

Separate from Thursday’s police dispatch, APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said that a rumor about “several incidents of Oakridge students using their iPads to view hard-core porn” was “not true.”

In 2017, a group circulated an online petition calling for APS to “discontinue immediately the current 1:1 iPad program within APS elementary schools for grades K-5,” which supplies each student with an APS-purchased device. The petition garnered just under 400 signers.

The iPad email comes amid a rise of violent incidents and other misbehavior in and outside of schools, as we reported yesterday.

The full email to Oakridge families is below.

Greetings Oakridge Families.

Students’ iPads will remain at school for the foreseeable future. This is a result of an increase of technology misuse and breach of the APS Acceptable Use Policy that students and families acknowledged at the start of the year. Teachers, students and families have shared that iPads are being used inappropriately outside of school hours. Inappropriate use includes, but is not limited to: nudity, inappropriate Google searches, messaging via Google docs, video downloading, recording other students without their consent, and gaming. Additionally, students have become heavily reliant on the use of their iPads for Non-APS related activities. We are going to re-establish the expectations specific to this technology. Please remind your children that the iPad is a learning tool specific to school assignments.

We are currently checking all iPads to ensure that they are being used appropriately. If we discover inappropriate content on your child’s iPad, you will be notified immediately.

To ensure that children have access to the technology during the school day, we ask that you return all charging equipment. This will help create more consistent and clearly defined iPad usage routines. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding. We want your children to remain safely engaged in their learning. Please contact either Mr. Sean Jones (ITC) or myself if you have any questions or concerns.

Take care,

Lynne Wright

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The interfaith prayer vigil for Ukraine at Marymount University (courtesy photo)

(Updated at 9:35 a.m. 03/23/21) Most college seniors spend spring break tossing back cocktails somewhere warm and inviting — a last hoorah before graduation.

But one Marymount University student did pretty much the exact opposite. He traveled to his birth country of Ukraine, which Russia invaded nearly four weeks ago, to help some of his family members flee their homes and resettle in Poland.

A.C. — who asked the college to abbreviate his name fearing his safety and that of his family — has family members living in the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. The war has caused a massive refugee crisis, and 10 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, either for more remote parts of the country or for neighboring countries, chiefly Poland.

“It’s a lot worse of a situation than even what’s being shown on TV. When I was in Lviv, every five to 10 minutes the sirens would go off, warning anyone and everyone to find shelter or evacuate,” A.C. said in an interview with his school. “Near the edge of Lviv, I saw several bodies just laying outside buildings because there aren’t really any spots right now to bury victims. It was all very nerve-wracking.”

Some of his family resettled in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, but others told him they plan to stay in Kyiv — along with an estimated two million others sticking it out, either because they do not have a place to go or the means to get there, or in defiance of Russia.

“I pleaded with them, begged them to leave… told them, ‘you will die if you stay here.’ While I admire their patriotism for Ukraine, it’s inevitable what will happen and I would rather them be alive than sacrifice their lives,” A.C. said. “They’re attacking churches, hospitals, apartment complexes. They’re just openly targeting civilians because of their nationality — it is genocide, and there’s no other way to describe it.”

The Marymount senior predicts that if he is not thwarted, Russian president Vladimir Putin will target neighboring countries, a concern shared in particular by many Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — all of which were formerly under the control of the Soviet Union.

A.C. left Ukraine at six years old and has since become an American citizen, but he stays in touch with his roots through the Ukrainian embassy in D.C. and nearby Ukrainian churches, which offer volunteer opportunities, language classes and festivals.

Now, he’s tapping into his patriotism in a different way. He has attended protests outside the Russian embassy as well as at Lafayette Square, joining other demonstrators calling on the U.S. government to hold Russia accountable. He is also raising awareness for Ukraine on his campus.

During a recent interfaith prayer vigil for peace, he delivered a poem he wrote entitled “My Ukraine.” In it, he contrasts the country’s war-torn history and present-day circumstances with depictions of it as “a land of innocence and prosperity… filled with fields of sunflowers glistening… with magnificent churches and cathedrals.”

“I stand by my nation of Ukraine,” A.C. told Marymount.

Addressing his birth country and its people, he said, “I love you. Fight for our land. This is our land. This is our home. Slava Ukraini.”

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Washington-Liberty High School students browse copies of “Beloved” and “Maus” (courtesy photo)

(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) This afternoon, a group of Washington-Liberty High School students are giving their peers more than 100 copies of two politically controversial books.

The books are “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel following a Black family during the Reconstruction era, and “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust and his father’s life during World War II. Both have explicit content that has some parents and politicians questioning their place in schools.

Controversy around “Beloved” is part of the origin story for a bill passed by the state Senate earlier this month, which would require teachers to label classroom materials that have sexually explicit content. “Maus,” meanwhile, rocketed into the national spotlight after a Tennessee school board voted last month to remove the book from its curriculum due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman.

In addition to labeling classroom materials that have sexually explicit content, the new law requires teachers to notify parents if they are going to teach the materials. It gives parents the right to opt their children out of these lessons and request alternative materials.

But some high school students in Arlington and Fairfax counties are calling the law “backdoor censorship” and organized the distribution in response. It began at 3:15 p.m. in Quincy Park, near W-L.

“Great thinkers and proud Virginians like Thomas Jefferson, Maggie Walker, James Madison, George Mason and Oliver Hill — men and women who understood the importance of education and the value of studying difficult and divisive ideas — are rolling over in their graves,” W-L freshman and giveaway organizer Aaron Zevin-Lopez said in a statement.

Zevin-Lopez tells ARLnow he teamed up with George Marshall High School student Matt Savage — who has been facilitating distributions in Northern Virginia schools this month — to host a book giveaway in Arlington.

“Kids at my school understood that the Governor was attempting to limit reading rights within schools, so we thought that handing out the books beforehand could be a great way to spread the message of resistance and making sure the youth understands our past, both good and bad,” Zevin-Lopez said.

The two students are leaders of the Virginia chapter of a Gen-Z political advocacy group called Voters of Tomorrow, which is providing financial support for the giveaway.

“When the government establishes laws to label literature in terms of a single factor like ‘sexually explicit’, regardless of that factor’s significance to the larger world of literary merit or meaning, it edges closer to censorship,” said Savage, president of Voters of Tomorrow Virginia. “It means we are labeling content for the sole purpose of suppressing it.”

The students say requiring teachers to define their lessons in terms of how much “sexually explicit” content it contains will dissuade them from using anything that may be considered “objectionable.” They add that the law will force teachers to draft two entire lesson plans for one class on the objection of just one parent.

The bill is similar to one passed in 2016, which became known as the “Beloved” bill because it was inspired by a mother’s attempt to have the novel removed from her son’s English class. It was vetoed, however, by Gov. Terry McAuliffe — and his veto narrowly avoided being overturned by the House of Delegates.

The question of parental involvement in education became a central theme of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign after McAuliffe said during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Passing the law was a campaign promise of and priority for Youngkin when he assumed office. The Republican governor unsuccessfully tried to pass other laws, including one rooting out curriculum based on critical race theory, and created a tip line for people to report teaching strategies they object to.

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Arlington County school bus (Photo courtesy Chris Rief)

(Updated at noon) Arlington Public Schools is bringing athletics back early and reducing quarantine periods, despite more than a thousand Covid cases reported among students and staff this past week.

Starting next week, the school system will adopt revised CDC guidance, Superintendent Francisco Durán wrote in an email to the school community Wednesday. The isolation period for staff members who test positive will be halved to five days. The new guidelines also reduced the quarantine period to five days for a student or staff member who is considered a close contact to someone who tested positive.

“Students who are exempt from quarantine (e.g., those with up-to-date vaccinations, are asymptomatic and are able to wear a mask) will be excluded and verified by Contact Tracers before being able to return to school,” Durán noted.

APS will still require a 10-day isolation period for students who test positive for COVID-19, despite the CDC’s recent change to guidelines allowing a five-day isolation for positive cases under certain conditions. That’s because APS is unable to ensure that “consistent physical distancing and mask protocols [are] in place at all times, including during meals.”

“Maintaining safe, consistent in-person learning is our priority,” Durán wrote. “APS will maintain in-person learning except in limited instances to address high transmission in a classroom or school. Switching any class or school to virtual learning–even for a short period of time–will be a last resort.”

There are 864 students and 183 employees who have tested positive for Covid over the past week, according to the APS Covid dashboard as of publication time. That compares to 56 positive student cases over a seven-day period just over a month ago, in early December.

Arlington is currently seeing its highest Covid hospitalization rate since January 2021. Nine people were hospitalized on Wednesday alone, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. The seven-day moving average of daily hospitalizations is now just above four.

As teachers and community members expressed concerns about the surge in Covid cases over winter break, driven by the new Omicron variant, Durán committed to return in person. Last week’s snowstorms ended up cancelling school for the entire week, but students returned to classrooms on Monday.

While some in the community have urged more caution amid the Covid wave, others have advocated for schools and activities to remain open.

In a statement Monday, prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the pro-school-reopening group Arlington Parents for Education said that “APS should follow the CDC-recommended five days for isolations and quarantines instead of ten in order to significantly increase APS’ ability to staff schools and to reduce students’ days out of school.”

Arlington Parents for Education and more than 1,500 petition signers have also called for APS to resume athletic activities, which were “paused” for two weeks to start the new year, a move not mirrored by other local school systems.

In his email, Durán said that in-person athletics and extracurriculars returned early, on Wednesday, “following our current testing, vaccination and mask requirements.”

Only family members can watch events, Durán wrote in his email. Other limitations for spectators could apply based on facility.

The full message from Superintendent Durán is below.

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A teen is facing charges after he allegedly threatened and then scratched a fellow student with a knife on a school bus earlier this week.

The incident happened aboard an Arlington Public Schools bus Tuesday afternoon, along Clarendon Blvd in the Courthouse and Clarendon areas. The teen also allegedly ran after the victim and a witness while armed with the knife, after they all got off the bus, police said.

More from an Arlington County Police Department crime report:

MALICIOUS WOUNDING (late), 2021-11300165, 2100 block of Clarendon Boulevard. At approximately 4:45 p.m. on November 30, police were dispatched to the late report of an assault. Upon arrival, it was determined that at approximately 3:30 p.m., the juvenile victim was riding a school bus when he became involved in a verbal altercation with the suspect. The suspect allegedly brandished a knife and held it to the victim, causing a scratch. A witness pushed the suspect away and he exited the bus. A short time later, the victim and witness were walking in the area of Clarendon Boulevard and N. Barton Street when the suspect began to run towards them with the knife. They were able to run to safety. The investigation is ongoing.

APS spokesman Frank Bellavia told ARLnow that it was a Yorktown High School bus, but was unable to provide more information.

“I don’t have any additional than what is in the crime report,” Bellavia said.

ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said today that the suspect has been identified and is now facing charges.

“The involved juvenile has been identified and charges are pending,” Savage told us. “This remains an active criminal investigation. Anyone with information that may assist with the investigation is asked to contact the Police Department’s tip line at 703-228-4180 or [email protected]

Police have responded at least two other notable incidents associated with Yorktown over the past few months.

In early August, a brawl broke out outside of the school amid summer classes. Police said at the time that they were investigating the fight, which was caught on video.

In October, a girl walking near the school during the homecoming football game was touched inappropriately, prompting a police investigation and, later, walkouts and a petition against sexual misconduct at Yorktown. The petition has garnered tens of thousands of signatures to date.

Over the summer the Arlington School Board voted to remove School Resource Officers from schools. The Board is set to consider the draft of a new, scaled-down agreement with ACPD at its Dec. 16 meeting. The Board chair recently said that she believes Arlington schools remain safe even without the SROs as a regular presence in the buildings.

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Students at the inaugural session of the Dyslexic Edge Academy at Drew Elementary School (Photo courtesy of Krista Gauthier)

(Updated, 2:50 p.m.) A new, free literacy program has come to Drew Elementary School thanks to the local non-profit Sliding Doors, Virginia Tech, and the local NAACP branch.

The Dyslexic Edge Academy launched this week with 11 first graders at Drew Elementary in Green Valley. The goal is to help those students who struggle with reading by focusing on their strengths.

“People with dyslexia tend to gravitate to and be very good in STEM fields; science, technology, engineering and math,” Krista Gauthier, executive director of Merrifield-based Sliding Doors, tells ARLnow.”What we want to do is not only make sure that kids receive the evidence-based instruction that they need, but also play on their strengths. To us, confidence is as important as reading.”

The students meet with instructors after school in a group setting twice a week for 90 minutes. Half of the session is spent with one-on-one tutoring using the Orton-Gillingham approach, which breaks down reading and spelling using multisensory skills like sounds and hand motions. The other half of the session is spent on STEM-related projects.

The STEM activities include everything from kitchen chemistry to rocketry to robotics to coding,” says Gauthier.

That could mean making slime, building model rockets, or operating an underwater robot, she says. It’s hoped that field trips to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Smithsonian could be part of the curriculum in the future as well.

While the program is starting with 11 students, the expectation is that it will have 20 students by early next year. The pilot program will run until at least May 2023.

About 20% of the population has some form of dyslexia, according to statistics from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Yet, many school systems haven’t adapted to help these students and private tutoring can be prohibitively expensive, explains Symone Walker, co-chair of the Arlington Branch NAACP Education Committee.

She believes this is a big reason why there’s such an opportunity gap at some Arlington schools, including Drew Elementary.

“We really wanted to target a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the achievement gap,” says Walker. “We’re very familiar with how Drew has been historically passed over, looked over in the community, and we wanted to give back where we saw the greatest need.”

Both Walker and Gauthier say that the opportunity and achievement gaps that exist in county schools have a lot to do with reading scores and how schools are teaching literacy.

The Dyslexic Edge Academy will use the multisensory Orton-Gillingham approach to teach reading, as opposed to the balanced literacy approach that’s currently being taught in Arlington public schools.

“When we talk about multisensory, we’re talking about big motions,” says Gauthier. “We actually use something called ‘skywriting,’ which is as the child is actually forming the letter in the air… they’re actually saying the letter, repeating the letter, attaching the sound to the letter.”

What’s more, by bringing cool STEM-related projects into the learning, it helps students gain confidence.

“They really begin to associate something they struggle with, with something they love,” says Gauthier. “It really actually plays into them wanting to read as well.”

As Walker points out, a lot of NASA employees have some form of dyslexia. In fact, that includes more than half of NASA employees, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

“We want to produce more Arlingtonians who work for NASA,” she said.

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(Updated, 12:30 p.m.) Some Marymount University students say they can’t afford a new housing policy that will require them to live on campus all four years.

Last week, a group of 15 students demonstrated outside of the Catholic university on N. Glebe Road in protest over a policy that will take effect next fall, requiring most students to live on campus during their entire stint at the school.

“Beginning in the Fall of 2022, all current and new undergraduate students who do not live with family members in the local [D.C] area will be required to live in University housing,” a university spokesperson told ARLnow.

A Change.org petition in response to the new policy calls for it to be rescinded, alleging that it’s a “blatant money-grab.” Plus, notes the petition, some off-campus leases have already been signed for next year, leaving students “to choose between breaking their lease or breaking university policy.”

The petition has more than 650 signatures.

The university tells ARLnow that this policy came from “input” they’ve received from students who say living on campus helps them have a “more engaged and fulfilling Marymount experience.” It also eliminates “problems with landlords and local housing laws, a growing trend that has been brought to our administration’s attention in recent years,” according to the spokesperson.

Those students who disagree with the policy say this makes attending Marymount University unaffordable for them when they could find lower cost housing options off-campus.

The lowest priced on-campus housing option is Rowley Hall, a dormitory on campus offering double rooms (as in, shared with another student). It costs $4,743 a semester, according to 2021-2022 housing rates, which works out to be more than $1,100 per month, per student. However, that option is only open to freshman and sophomores.

“We feel like we’re being priced out,” Giancarlo Ganzaba, a second-year Marymount student, tells ARLnow. “Not all of us can afford to keep [paying that]. We have to take out loans to be able to pay for on-campus living. We just can’t afford it.”

Ganzaba lives in the Rixey at 1008 N. Glebe Road, on Marymount’s satellite campus in Ballston, which was acquired by the school in 2019 and converted into university housing.

It was just announced last month that some of the student housing in the Rixey is going to be converted into hotel rooms. An attorney for the university noted that “student housing availability on site has consistently exceeded demand for student housing at Marymount,” according to the Washington Business Journal.

Ganzaba current pays $6,500 a semester to live in a two-bedroom, two-bath unit with three roommates at the Rixey. That’s about $1,600 a month.

While that may be competitive with average rent levels, it is still incredibly expensive housing,” he says. “I could afford to live somewhere else off campus a few miles away and be a commuter. But they are taking that option away from me.”

Marymount, however, says that student who need it will have access to financial aid for housing.

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You’ve probably seen the headlines about a youth trend called “Devious Licks” that challenged students to steal or damage items at school and post video of the act on TikTok.

Now Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Francisco Durán is warning parents about additional challenges that encourage behavior that could result in the school system seeking police intervention.

Durán said in an email to parents yesterday evening that the theft challenge in September “affected APS schools at every level – elementary through high school.” TikTok banned the trend on Sept. 15.

“We are seeking your help in reminding students of the consequences and serious nature of these challenges,” Durán wrote.

A statement from the superintendent on Friday linked to a WTOP report about additional monthly challenges, which encourage  “destructive and harmful acts at school.”

From WTOP:

  • October: Smack a staff member on the backside.
  • November: Kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school.
  • December: Deck the halls and show your b****.
  • January: Jab a breast.
  • February: Mess up school signs.
  • March: Make a mess in the courtyard or cafeteria.
  • April: Grab some “eggs” (another theft challenge).
  • May: Ditch Day.
  • June: Flip off the front office.

“Any involvement including filming, assisting, and sharing videos could lead to school consequences,” Durán wrote. “Depending on the severity, engaging in the behaviors listed above could lead to law enforcement involvement.”

As described, the above challenges could rise to the level of criminal vandalism, indecent exposure or even sexual battery and assault.

This summer the Arlington School Board voted to remove sworn School Resource Officers from school grounds. The Arlington County Police Department and APS are now working on a new agreement for a “Youth Outreach Unit” that would “have meaningful conversations, answer questions, and build relationships.”

The Friday letter from the superintendent, encouraging parental vigilance, is below.

It has come to our attention that there is a list of social media challenges on TikTok similar to the most recent “Devious Licks” TikTok Challenge that encouraged kids to vandalize and steal random objects from their schools and post them in videos.

September’s challenge to vandalize bathrooms affected several APS schools, so we are sharing the list of upcoming challenges for your awareness and support. We ask that parents and guardians speak to your students about the serious nature of these challenges and help educate them that these are not appropriate for school or in the community.

These challenges could be disruptive and harmful to our school community and present a safety concern. Additionally, any involvement including filming, assisting, and sharing videos could lead to school consequences. Students are encouraged to contact their administrator if they are aware or witness any wrongdoing or harm against students, staff or property. Depending on the severity, engaging in the behaviors listed above could lead to law enforcement involvement.

The safety and security of our students, both physical and emotional, is our priority as we continue to create a learning environment that cultivates a culture of kindness, mutual respect, inclusivity and affirmation for our students and staff.

Thank you for your help as we all work together to be vigilant about our students’ online presence.

Sincerely,
Dr. Francisco Durán
Superintendent

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The Arlington County Police Department is reminding folks to navigate school zones and bus stops safely as Arlington Public Schools students return to class today.

“More travelers will soon be on our roadways as students begin walking, bicycling, and riding the bus to school when classes resume on Monday,” the department said in a release said. “With a little awareness and prevention, all travelers can arrive at their destinations in a timely and safe manner.”

It’s the first time APS students will be in class five days per week since before the pandemic.

Motorists will see variable message boards on county roadways reminding them to slow down, avoid distractions and watch for students, according to the release. The “high-visibility transportation safety campaign in and around school zones and bus stops” is intended “to ensure the trip to class is as safe as possible.”

Police recommend families talk to their kids about safety, too.

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility and back-to-school is an opportune time to remind students about important steps that can help keep them safe while out in the community,” the department said.

The police department and Arlington Public Schools published a video with safety reminders.

The press release included the following safety tips for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Transportation Safety Tips

Drivers are reminded to:

  • Obey speed limits which may change during school zone times.
  • Avoid distracted driving and keep your attention on the road.
  • Watch for students walking and riding bikes to school.
  • Don’t pass a stopped school bus loading or unloading passengers.On a two-lane road, vehicles traveling in both directions must stop.
  • On a multi-lane paved road, vehicles traveling in both directions must stop.
  • On a divided highway, vehicles behind the bus must stop. Vehicles traveling in the opposite direction may proceed with caution.
  • Have all vehicle occupants wear their seatbelts.
  • Pick-up and drop-off students in designated locations.

Pedestrians are reminded to:

  • Cross the street at marked crosswalks and never against a red light.
  • Look before you cross and follow the direction of school crossing guards or APS staff members.
  • Always walk on designated sidewalks or paths, never along the side of a road.

Bicyclists are reminded to:

  • Wear your helmet. Helmets are required for riders ages 14 and younger but are recommended for all.
  • Keep right and ride with traffic.
  • Secure your bicycle with a lock when not in use

General Safety Tips for Students

Safety is everyone’s responsibility and back-to-school is an opportune time to remind students about important steps that can help keep them safe while out in the community. Parents and guardians are also encouraged to role-play possible situations with students and discuss personal safety and awareness tips.

Ensure students:

  • Know their address, telephone number and how to contact a parent or guardian.
  • Remain aware of their surroundings.
  • Walk or bike with another person, whenever possible. Stay in well-lit areas.
  • Limit the use of devices that may distract them.
  • Avoid engaging with or answering questions from strangers.
  • Immediately report anything that makes them feel unsafe to a trusted adult.
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Arlington Public Schools students learning on their devices while in person during the pandemic (via APS/Twitter)

Seven years after the initial rollout of Arlington Public Schools’ digital learning initiative, and after a year of heavier use due to distance-learning, opinions on tech in schools remain divided.

For today’s students and parents, virtual learning during the pandemic only highlighted the benefits of and exacerbated the drawbacks to iPads and laptops. Parents say their kids struggle to focus, navigate programs and engage with the material. Students tell ARLnow that the devices can make their learning easier, more efficient and more interesting, but some have also outsmarted controls to watch TV and play games.

“They help you out. You can just search up anything you need there,” said Liam, a rising seventh-grader in APS. He added that it’s easier to stay on top of work and grades online using Canvas, the division’s learning management system, saying “you can see if you have any missing assignments, and if you’re doing well in school or not.”

Views appear to remain as entrenched as they were in 2019, when North Carolina State University studied tech use and support for devices in APS. At the time, 55% of parents supported the initiative, compared to the 85% of teachers and 75% of students who said devices improved the learning experience.

Through its initial rollout, APS aimed to give each 2nd-12th grade student a tablet or laptop for school use by 2017. From 2017 up until the pandemic, APS provided iPads to all students between third and eighth grade and MacBook Airs to high school students.

Today, the school system uses approximately 34,000 student devices, including both individual devices and shared computers, according to an APS spokesperson. This includes all K-2 students, who were given iPads during the pandemic to facilitate virtual learning when schools were closed. This year, K-2 students will continue to have access to individual devices.

Most students will be in-person this fall, using their devices in the classroom setting. About 890 will be learning fully at a distance, due to the pandemic and personal preference. That preference is set to eventually give rise to a full-time, APS-run virtual learning academy for those who want the flexibility provided by learning at home on their own time.

Over the last year, iPads and MacBooks were how students interacted with teachers and classmates and completed assignments via Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace apps, along with apps such as Dreambox, which offers interactive math lessons and games, and Seesaw, which is like the digital equivalent of a homework folder that both teachers and parents can access.

“Our kids are using their iPads for content delivery, for collaboration, and for writing, reading, and simulation. Creatively, they’re also doing activities and learning through research and creating projects,” Arlington Traditional School instructional technology coordinator Marie Hone said.

Rising fourth-grader Spencer suggests that without iPads, virtual learning would have been more difficult.

“We were able to have calls with our teacher and meet together for school, unlike the year before that,” he said.

Pre-pandemic, high schoolers Anthony Doll and Wyatt Shoelson say that they used their MacBooks in just about every class.

“MacBooks make it easier to keep everything in one place. Typing everything out and going on websites for classes is easier. It’s better to do it electronically than on paper,” Doll said. “My high school experience would be a lot more disorganized without MacBooks.”

Still, concerns remain. Rising second-grader Cecilia Leonard tells ARLnow that the approximately three hours she spent on her iPad throughout the school day hurt her eyes. Experts say that kids who spend too much time on screens may experience eye fatigue and sleep problems.

Middle and elementary school students also tell stories of classmates circumventing device restrictions to play video games and stream videos.

“There are these websites that are pretty much educational, but there’s also a non-educational twist to them, and you can play games on them. We also figured out you can watch Hulu on certain websites,” Spencer said.

And parents? Some have been critical of the program since 2014, when they said it was put in the budget with little public input. After watching their kids learn online for a full year, some parents are not convinced they help. Whether during Arlington School Board meetings or on online forums, some parents continue to be concerned about whether iPads and MacBooks help students or hurt them.

“Devices are not the answer to teach kids. Many kids craved paper and were denied. The iPad was a wonderful connection device but difficult for production and navigation of several tabs for middle school kids,” said parent Kelly Alexis, who manages the Facebook group Arlington Education Matters, where much discussion over iPads and laptops has taken place.

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