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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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After suffering a career-ending injury playing college football, Graham Kelley stepped off the field for a while and spent several years working in software sales.

Last year, he decided to return to sports — this time turning his attention to helping young athletes and former athletes like him working desk jobs.

At Capital City Sports Academy, his new gym just over the Arlington County border in Bailey’s Crossroads, Kelley is helping young athletes train safely and encouraging adults to get back into shape. The 4,500-square-foot facility at 3431 Carlin Springs Road had its grand opening on Saturday after a soft opening for a handful of new members last month.

“[The gym] is designed for young athletes in two focuses: speed and agility to develop athleticism, and strength and conditioning to develop core stability and muscle mass necessary for younger athletes as they grow,” he said.

Kelley said his location, close to several high schools in Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as Alexandria, will benefit a large number of athletes who are requiring more intense, specialized training at younger ages.

“I wish I had a facility like Capital City when I was in high school,” Kelley said. “Thinking back to when I was 10, 11 years old and developing my athleticism, a place like Capital City to learn the fundamentals would have been instrumental in my development. I think the opportunity could have helped me avoid the injury I incurred.”

Training will be overseen by Head Coach and General Manager Chad Ward, who Kelley described as “the most positive person I’ve ever met.”

“Our athletes have responded well, parents are extremely happy with him. It’s been really exciting to see,” he said. “We want to build something special and help local kids shine.”

The facility also offers boot camp-style and circuit-based classes to help former athletes get active again.

“Getting the adult to move again like they’re the athlete they were in the past has shown tons of positive health benefits to counteract the sedentary lifestyle of sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and staring at our phones,” said Kelley.

These classes are open to adults who have never played a sport as well.

“We don’t discriminate,” said Kelley.

The gym offers team training packages for high schools or organizations and also has monthly membership options. Kelley said costs vary by sport and school, so those interested in getting an estimate can email Capital City through its website.

It will be open Monday and Wednesday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Photos courtesy of Park and Langley Photography 

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(Updated 5:45 p.m.) Washington-Liberty High School senior James Licato is trying to clean up micropollutants in the Potomac River, and he came up with a solution that vaulted him to the finals of a major science competition.

Licato is one of 40 finalists in the Society for Science’s Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors. He developed a sandy substance, using zeolites, that acts as a microscopic net, catching the micropollutants that wastewater treatment facilities miss.

Chosen from 1,760 applicants, top finalists each earn $25,000 in scholarships and can nab between $40,000 and $250,000 if they are named in the top 10. This year’s virtual competition goes from March 10-17.

“Regeneron is definitely prestigious,” Licato said. “It feels great.”

Arlington Public Schools last had a senior — from Wakefield High School — make it to the finals in 1997. Washington-Liberty High School last had two students reach the final round in 1976, and have had four in total since 1942, said Society for Science spokeswoman Aparna Paul. Yorktown High School most recently had a finalist in 1996.

Licato credits the APS science staff with connecting him with extracurricular opportunities to present his work. His teachers also helped him work out the logistics of participating in science fairs and ordered materials he needed but could not obtain.

“The APS science department is awesome and has always been really supportive of everything I’ve done,” Licato said.

Licato said his area of research is a growing one, as more people become aware of the toxicity of these micropollutants. Many known pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) are toxic to aquatic organisms and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAs), found in non-stick and water-resistant coatings, can cause a host of diseases in humans, he said.

“The more we study, the more negative effects we find,” he said.

The benefit of his product is that it could be cheap and scalable because it could use the byproduct of coal fire plants, which normally sits in landfills, he said. It will need more testing and engineering work but Licato believes it has the potential to attract federal funding.

A Boy Scout and avid fisher, Licato has always been passionate about water quality and ecology. He won second place in the Earth and Environmental Sciences at the INTEL ISEF competition, also hosted by Society for Science, for his project removing an anti-diabetic medicine from wastewater.

That project introduced him to Thomas Huff, the Director of the Shared Research Instrumentation Facility at George Mason University, who specializes in researching river pollutants. Licato reached out to him because he needed to access a liquid chromatograph-tandem mass spectrometer.

At first, Huff was “highly skeptical,” but the then-sophomore won him over. He said Licato proved to be more adept with the machine than many senior undergraduate students.

Huff offered him an internship drawing and analyzing environmental samples at the Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge. He and a team of graduate researchers at George Mason University were determining the concentrations of PPCPs near wastewater treatment facilities for multiple grant projects.

Licato became a peer of the graduate student researchers, offering new ideas and mastering the software the team used, Huff said. He also developed methods of analyzing data that the other students and professors still use. The lab received a three-year contract to continue studying micropollutants.

“He was a consummate team member and morale booster,” the professor said. “He even taught tricks and tips to a full professor with 35 years of research experience.”

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Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups, founders, and other local technology news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1812 North Moore. 

Recent Yorktown High School graduate Eva Gary is bringing the magic of princesses, princes and superheroes to kids — from a safe distance and over Zoom.

At the height of the pandemic, Gary, a lifelong performer and musical theater lover, decided to defer college for a year. She wanted to re-apply to competitive musical theater programs that she could not get into and wait until more schools and classes are in-person.

With the extra time she had, she started Princess Wish Parties, granting the wishes of kids who want to see their favorite fairy tale characters.

Over the last year, Gary and her squad of characters have visited virtual art parties, events for school pods, and drive-up parties. The dance, do crafts, play games and perform sing-a-longs with kids.

“I love working with kids, and performing, and this is the most magical combination of those two things, literally,” she said.

Gary started “princessing” for other companies as a sophomore, saying it was the perfect job for a teen who needed improvisation practice and had experience working with kids. She took a break from it to apply for college, but when she ultimately decided to put college off for one year, she picked it back up.

Although she was skeptical of the first socially distanced party she attended, Gary said the experience did not change much: She still could believably embody a princess character, sing, dance and form connections with the kids.

Bolstered by the positive experience and encouraged by her mom, Gary took steps toward launching a princess company. She found second-hand “Snow Queen,” “Mermaid Princess” and “Rapunzel” costumes and wigs — these companies are not affiliated with Disney, for the record — and tested them on neighborhood kids who she said are in “the princess stage.”

“The girls believed it and were so excited about it,” she said. “That was when I realized I can do this. Having had a little bit of experience as a performer, I knew I needed to get my head around the business side, but performing would be the same.”

Since then, she has virtually auditioned and hired actors, many of whom she knew from other “princessing” gigs and the musical theater community. She has quickly added on more princesses and expanded her offerings to include princes and superheroes.

“Every second of free time is spent on this company and recently, applying for schools,” she said.

Working as a princess this year has helped her hone her craft as a princess and a performer.

“I think I’ve grown immensely as a princess performer from my sophomore year until now,” she said, adding that she also has to “be prepared to remind their kid to not put dirt in their mouth — in a friendly, princessy way.”

Now that the company has taken off, she said she plans to manage the company and hire actors from a distance during college, and delegate the logistics of handling parties to one of her younger sisters.

“It’s been harder than I expected, but I could spend every waking moment working on this and I would be happy,” she said

Photo courtesy Princess Wish Parties 

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High school students in Arlington Public Schools say they are getting too many assignments and not enough time to do them during virtual learning.

More than 3,000 students and parents have signed a Change.org petition asking Arlington Public Schools to adhere to its high school homework “expectations,” as stated online.

Students are encouraged to engage in nightly independent reading of their choice. Beyond that, no additional assignments/homework will be required outside of the expectations for asynchronous work that is part of students’ daily class time, or the 30 minutes per subject of asynchronous work assigned for Mondays.

​The volume of signatures caught the attention of the school system. The petition was the first time staff were notified that these concerns are shared by more than just a few students, said APS spokesman Frank Bellavia.

“We take the feedback we receive via a variety of formats seriously,” he said. “All of our high school principals are aware and are meeting with teachers to examine the number of assignments being given and to reduce them where applicable.”

Principals are working at the subject level with instructional supervisors to come up with solutions that reduce the workload on students, he said.

Bellavia said the homework policy that the petitioners are referencing is not policy, but rather, it is guidance for secondary teachers. According to the guidance, teachers of college-level classes may need to assign more work to cover the breadth of their curricula.

One student told ARLnow that for the most part, the types of assignments and the volume are about the same, with the caveat that some teachers are assigning hours of video content.

“I probably spend… three hours a week watching videos for those classes, and I have three or four classes that assign videos,” he said.

That amounts to three to 12 hours a week of videos. For this student — who is taking all college-level classes and admits that more work comes with the territory — the workload did not motivate him to sign the petition.

“The homework itself doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s more that there was a policy made and they’re not following it.”

Despite the breakdown he sees between the school system’s expectations for assignments and the reality of distance learning, he commended his teachers for how they have adapted to online-only learning.

“Students like to give them flak, but from an objective standpoint, they’re doing pretty well,” he said.

Another student said, as a reason for signing the petition, that she has been working “15 hours every single day (8 a.m. 10 p.m.) non-stop ever since the beginning of school.”

She added that there are too many assignments and not enough asynchronous time in which to complete them.

“We shouldn’t be getting that much work especially in a learning environment that we aren’t familiar with,” she said. “It’s not because of poor time management, it’s because of so much work we are getting.”

In the petitions’ comments, parents also threw in their support, saying they have watched their students lose lunch hours to additional instruction and devote entire weekends to homework.

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