Arlington, VA

Marymount University’s commencement weekend is underway and is back to being an in-person event.

The university held last year’s ceremony virtually due to the pandemic. This year’s commencement will feature a trio of notable speakers: former Virginia Department of Education Secretary James Dyke Jr. on Friday, Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson on Saturday, and former Washington Post publisher Don Graham on Sunday.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be grouped by their college at the university for the first time as part of the proceedings, which are taking place on the athletic field at the university’s main campus near Washington Golf and Country Club.

The schedule will run as follows.

  • 10 a.m. Friday: Commencement for the College of Health and Education
  • 10 a.m. Saturday: Commencement for the College of Sciences and Humanities
  • 4:30 p.m. Saturday: A celebration for 2019-2020 graduates will take place in the Lee Center
  • 10 a.m. Sunday: Commencement for the College of Business, Innovation, Leadership and Technology

“Marymount’s face covering policy and social distancing protocols will be followed in each event,” the university said in a May 7 news release prior to the new CDC guidance. “Only graduating students, faculty and speakers will be permitted on the Converse Family Field during the commencement ceremonies, but two guests for each graduating student will be accommodated on campus to view the ceremony via a livestream broadcast.”

The ceremonies will also be livestreamed on Marymount’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the university plans to return fully to on-campus activities this fall while requiring students to be vaccinated.

President Irma Becerra said in a news release that officials concluded the requirement would “best ensure that the University is able to offer a safe, face-to-face” environment.

“For both the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, Marymount has operated through a hybrid model that has allowed students to learn and live on campus, with remote course delivery options also utilized to achieve a safe and optimal learning environment,” the university noted.

During the fall semester last year, the university responded to a cluster of infections on campus but has repeatedly reported progress since then.

“No positive COVID-19 cases at Marymount have been traced back to classroom settings, and there have been no disruptions to University operations from any COVID-related impacts,” the university added. “Recently, student athletes resumed competition with other colleges and universities as well.”

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A Wakefield High School student’s digital photo titled “Shadows of Democracy” will be featured in the U.S. Capitol.

Charlie Williams, a senior, noted that he took the digital photo of a reflection in a puddle just weeks before rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“This is a reflection of the U.S. Capitol after a rainstorm,” Williams said, as quoted in a news release. “I was able to capture the detail in the Capitol Dome through the puddle and tried to convey the emotions in the image.”

Williams said his photo represents “an alternate reality which serves as a premonition of what the government can become if democracy falls.”

A panel with the National Art Education Association chose his artwork among dozens of entries for the Congressional Art Competition in Virginia’s 8th District, Rep. Don Beyer said in the same news release.

“Our nation is still grappling with the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War, and many of the issues raised by the attack on the Capitol still remain unresolved,” Beyer said. “I hope ‘Shadows Of Democracy’ will remind my fellow Members of Congress that our nation continues to wrestle with what happened here, and that our votes and actions reverberate through history.”

It will be displayed in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel, Beyer said, also noting that Williams is the second winner in a row from Wakefield after Kidus Sebil’s photo won the competition in 2020.

Photo courtesy office of Rep. Don Beyer

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(Updated 12:20 a.m.) Before the coronavirus, Reade Bush’s son was a talkative child with autism and ADHD who loved school and his friends.

But the pandemic changed the world and in turn changed him. Without a routine and social opportunities, his son created an imaginary world “with 52 friends.” By summertime, he struggled to distinguish his real world from his imaginary one. He began hallucinating.

“On his ninth birthday, he asked me, ‘Daddy, can I die for my birthday?'” he recounted to some members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Labor and Education Committee last Thursday. Encouraged by another APS parent, who had connections on Capitol Hill, Bush told members of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee about the ways COVID-19 has impacted students with disabilities.

Public school systems are required by law to provide to students with disabilities the specialized instruction and therapeutic services they need to learn alongside their non-disabled peers where possible. Using his family’s story, Bush told the committee that virtual instruction has made it almost impossible to meet that charge.

Arlington Public Schools, which shut down in March 2020, started the 2020-21 school year with four days of distance learning and one planning day. By November, some students with disabilities could return for in-person learning supports. Since mid-March, students across all grade levels have trickled back for two days of in-person instruction.

This fall, 95% of students will be enrolled for five days a week of in-person instruction, something administrators have repeatedly told families and School Board members that they will deliver. But Bush said his son and and his daughter, who has cerebral palsy, have regressed academically and socially and should have been given in-person instruction sooner.

Over the last year, many parents have recounted stories of their children losing their love of learning. But for Bush, his son lost more than that — he lost sleep, social skills and his grip on reality.

“We feel like we have lost our son,” he tells ARLnow.

Bush and his wife recorded and sent to administrators videos of their son and their daughter struggle to engage with their teachers. He praised his kids’ teachers, therapists and school building-level administrators for “trying to make lemonade from lemons” but Bush had to work nights and his wife had to quit her job to support their children from home.

The parents aimed to get students with disabilities face-to-face with teachers and peers. Bush advocated for this during meetings with teachers and administrators, School Board office hours and Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee meetings.

“We were told, ‘There’s nothing we can do,'” he said.

Meanwhile, his son’s condition worsened, landing him in Children’s National Hospital for four days. After running numerous tests, doctors concluded the child’s autism had worsened due to social isolation.

Doctors prescribed four medications, but said “what he needed most was to return to full-time, in-person learning so that he could begin to solidify his identity with real, in-person teachers and peers,” Bush told the subcommittee.

Bush told ARLnow that three doctors wrote to administrators asking for his son to be placed in an in-person private special-education school. (When local public schools cannot meet children’s needs, it can use state funds to place them in a specialized school).

He said administrators denied his multiple requests in part because his son would only be socializing with students with disabilities. Where possible, another federal statute requires schools to place disabled students with non-disabled peers.

His son instead learned from an iPad in a classroom alone, save for a staff member who helped him, he said.

“In November, we brought in our most vulnerable students with disabilities population to immediately help provide support to access virtual instruction and as soon as we could staff it and tried to provide in-person instruction to the extent possible,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia told ARLnow this morning. “While some support was provided by special education assistants and Extended day staff, we worked hard to provide training to the staff that supported [these students].”

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A student allegedly made threats that led to Wakefield High School being placed in “secure the school mode” this morning.

The incident happened shortly before noon, prompting a large police response. It involved a student who was reportedly wearing a bulletproof or similar style vest.

“Just prior to 11:45 a.m., the School Resource Officer Supervisor received a call from a staff member at Wakefield High School regarding a student who had been involved in a physical altercation off school property,” Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Savage tells ARLnow. “The student allegedly retrieved what was described as a bulletproof vest and made verbal threats.”

Multiple police units then started responding to the school and looking for the student.

“The SRO Supervisor coordinated a police response and officers located the student, who was a passenger in a vehicle, traveling in the area of S. Frederick Street and S. George Mason Drive and conducted a traffic stop,” Savage said. “The student was detained without incident. As a result of the incident, Wakefield High School was placed on secure the building which has since been lifted. The investigation is ongoing at this time.”

Arlington Public Schools is currently considering changes to its School Resource Officer program. A work group is expected to make recommendations to the School Board next month.

Jo DeVoe contributed to this report

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(Updated 4:50 p.m.) The School Board approved a $700 million budget for the 2021-22 school year during its meeting on Thursday evening.

These funds will support both full-time in-person instruction and a distance education option for Arlington Public Schools students this coming fall and next spring. More than 24,000 students are projected to be in-person this August, according to APS.

The budget was pieced together with an ongoing county transfer of $527 million, a one-time transfer of $2.8 million, $3.5 million in carry-over funds from the 2020-21 school year, state and federal funding, and the use of $19.5 million in reserves. It is enough to keep APS in the black in the short term, according to Board Vice Chair Barbara Kanninen.

“This budget is going to be balanced, but going forward, we are carrying a deficit into next year,” she said.

It also takes into account lower enrollment than initially expected for the next school year, which was revealed just two days before the meeting.

When news dropped on Tuesday that about 2,000 students who left APS over the last year will not be returning, School Board members asked the school system to adjust the budget for reduced enrollment, expressing hope that it would help resolve a looming $11 million budget deficit.

After consulting with an enrollment expert, APS administrators offered an alternative budget that estimated 525 fewer students. The School Board voted 4-1 — with board member Reid Goldstein dissenting — to account for the more conservative projected reduction in enrollment. (Goldstein said he believed APS could make deeper reductions.)

“To provide any larger of a reduction would give a much greater weight to the 2020 enrollment than [the expert] felt would be practicable because this year is an anomaly,” said Leslie Peterson, Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Management Services.

This change to the budget saved the school system nearly $3.5 million, or nearly 37 full-time employees that APS would otherwise need to hire. APS is setting aside $500,000 of that savings to hire more staff if real enrollment is higher this fall.

“I believe this puts us in the situation of, I hope, almost similar to a freeze so that we are able to keep the current staff as much as we can in the building,” Board Chair Monique O’Grady said. “This will have an impact on hiring additional staff, but hopefully, we can keep current staff in place while saving us dollars in the middle of a tight budget scenario.”

Superintendent Francisco Durán, the outside enrollment expert and administrators did not support the lower enrollment projection, which they said does not account for high birth rates in Arlington in 2016 — children that are coming of elementary school age — or an increase in housing, among other factors included in enrollment projections.

With the new budget, the school system will be be increasing classroom sizes by one student for grades K-5, saving APS $1.8 million and the equivalent of hiring nearly 21 full-time employees.

In response to concerns from a handful of parents, the School Board used reserve funds to restore $85,000 in the budget, nixing a proposal to remove one copier from each school. The parents, Kanninen said, were concerned that fewer copiers would mean less pencil-and-paper work and more screen time.

“Even before the pandemic, we were making transitions to digital learning materials and other manipulatives to help students grasp concepts,” said Bridget Loft, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning. “While there would be some impact, the expectation is it would not be catastrophic or a game-changer, particularly since we’ve been engaged in moving in a different direction away from paper-based materials.”

Only Goldstein voted against the amendment, saying that he believes staff when they say it will not impact instruction.

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(Updated at 9:40 a.m.) Arlington Public Schools students and staff were unable to connect to the wireless network at schools this morning.

The system-wide outage impacted in-person learning, as well as distance learning for students whose teachers were unable to connect their devices at school.

In a School Talk email to families, APS said it was working to fix the technical difficulties.

The APS wireless network is unavailable at all school sites this morning. This impacts all in-person staff and students who use wireless devices to access APS network services.

Distance Learning students will not be affected unless their teacher is unable to connect their devices. We are working to resolve the issue. Once the problem has been resolved, we will notify staff and students.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

The Department of Information Services

By 9:20 a.m., the issue was resolved, APS said.

“The APS wireless network service inside APS buildings has been restored,” said a subsequent School Talk email. “Thank you for your patience while we worked to resolved the issue.

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About 2,000 students who left Arlington Public Schools after buildings shuttered in March 2020 have indicated they will not be returning this fall, according to APS staff.

This enrollment information — which could alter the budget for the 2021-2022 school year — landed in the laps of the Arlington School Board and school administrators during a budget work session Tuesday evening.

The problem? School Board members are slated to vote on the $700 million budget tomorrow (Thursday) and APS administrators say they do not have enough time to draw meaningful conclusions about how the budget will be impacted.

During the work session, however, School Board members asked staff to try anyway. They said recalibrating the budget for 2,000 fewer children could knock down the $11-$15 million budget deficit that APS is facing and could determine how the board votes to compensate staff.

(Since the School Board adopted a proposed budget in early April, which then included a $14.9 million deficit, Superintendent Francisco Durán and board members have proposed changes lowering the deficit to $11 million.)

“Our budget is funding for at least some students who we assumed would be part of our enrollment who are not,” Vice Chair Barbara Kanninen said. “We can’t not do anything with this information. I don’t know how we’re going to pull it off that quickly, but we have to: We owe it to the taxpayers of Arlington and we owe it to our staff, not to lowball them on compensation because we couldn’t figure out where the students will be.”

Durán cautioned against using the information to cut down on staffing without knowing more information. He vowed to provide more details tomorrow.

“We still need a deeper analysis to understand what the implications are,” he said.

APS previously projected 29,653 students would be enrolled in the school system next year. On multiple occasions, staff members have said they calculated the increase based on numbers from 2019, as 2020 was too irregular of a year given the pandemic.

But Lisa Stengle, Executive Director of Planning & Evaluation for APS, said the new survey responses are just one piece in a bigger puzzle of figuring out what next school year’s enrollment will look like.

“This number is about students who left, but we also have the intent-to-return surveys, we have new families not counted in this, and five years ago, we had the largest number of births to Arlington parents in quite a period of time,” Stengle said. “There are a lot of other factors. We need time to work all of those through. This is trying to estimate human behavior in a pandemic that we don’t have patterns for.”

Board member Reid Goldstein, however, said it is public knowledge at this point that members of the board believe 29,653 students is an overestimation. During the budget process, board members asked APS to calculate the savings if enrollment dropped to 28,500 students; staff said APS would save $5.9 million under such a scenario.

“This new information about 2,000 students planning not to come back is really giving me a lot of heartburn, given the budget that’s a day and a half away,” he said.

Kanninen brought up the enrollment news halfway through the meeting, which, up until then, had included a lengthy discussion on the myriad employee compensation plans the board will have to choose from.

Taking into account one compensation plan and the several million dollars in new budget cuts, APS faces an $11 million budget deficit. Meanwhile, a plan that provides a 1.5% cost of living increase at the start of the year — favored by a number of APS teachers and staff — would increase the deficit to $13.9 million.

Another option would provide a state-recommended 2% cost of living increase to all staff and would make APS eligible for $657,783 in state funding. Some School Board members said they want to take advantage of this funding and supported this option which would increase the deficit to nearly $16 million.

Board member David Priddy said by his math, the enrollment drop would save APS $8.3 million, and would cover any of the compensation plans.

“I think that we should pursue that,” he said.

Image via Arlington Public Schools 

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An attempt by Arlington Public Schools to balance enrollment without resorting to a boundary change did not go as planned.

This year, the school system encouraged families to apply to transfer from Abingdon Elementary School in Fairlington, which is projected to be at 119% capacity this fall, to Drew Elementary School in Green Valley, which is projected to be at 76% capacity. The schools are about two miles apart.

The application window closed two weeks ago, and so far, only 12 students are taking the “targeted transfer” option, which includes transportation to the new school, APS project planner Sarah Johnson said during last week’s School Board meeting.

Families can still apply and the school will admit families on a case-by-case basis, administrators said. If the option does not yield more transfers, APS will likely begin discussions this fall to modify the two schools’ boundaries, said Gladis Bourdouane, another project planner with APS.

These changes would come on the heels of the smaller-scale boundary process the board approved in December and ahead of a projected, larger-scale boundary process planned for as early as 2022.

In 2018, another boundary process proved controversial after parents at Abingdon and Henry elementary schools objected to proposed boundaries that would have sent some students at both schools to Drew.

Responding to the lack of interest in transferring this time around, School Board members urged administrators to review the voluntary transfer effort. They were divided, however, over whether this option could work in the future.

“I find this targeted transfer thing wholly inadequate,” Board Member Reid Goldstein said, adding that as far as he is concerned, it has “fallen on its face.”

Goldstein said he was “extremely distressed” when the boundary process last fall did not include Abingdon, despite being overcrowded for years. Instead, he said, the boundary changes last fall mostly adjusted neighborhood schools in the northern half of the county and did not take into account overcrowded schools in South Arlington.

“Twelve students are not going to go a long way toward balancing the huge overcapacity at Abingdon and the under-capacity at Drew,” he said. “I’m going to ask you, [Superintendent Francisco] Durán, to try and put some more aggressive measures in place to try and beef up only 12 students who are going from our most overcrowded school to our least crowded school, and not wait another two years before they get relief.”

As of now, administrators have no plans to keep advertising the transfer option, said Lisa Stengle, the executive director of planning and evaluation for APS.

The school system’s marketing efforts included setting up a website and releasing School Talk messages, while the two schools published information on their websites and mentioned the option during back-to-school events, Johnson said.

“We did make significant outreaches to the Abingdon families,” she said.

Despite the closed application window, APS is still encouraging families to apply. Whether students are accepted will depend on school capacity, staffing and finances, and not every family who applied thus far was eligible, she said.

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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.

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Arlington Public Schools families will have two prospects for school in the fall: five days a week of in-person learning or a fully remote K-12 learning program.

This week, APS opened up a two-week window during which families can choose how their children will attend school. Families have until Friday, April 30 to make their choice.

Over the last few months, students have returned to school in phases, with most returning in March for two days of in-person instruction a week across all grade levels. Although APS is sticking to the “hybrid” model for the rest of this semester, the school system said it will provide a full five-day in-person option this fall, in addition to in-person summer school.

Superintendent Francisco Durán reiterated this commitment two weeks ago.

“We are absolutely doing that in the fall,” Durán assured Arlington School Board members during a recent meeting. “We are headed to five days in-person in the fall. All of our planning now until then will be dedicated to that. That will be the sole plan we are working on.”

The push coincides with a Virginia law that Gov. Ralph Northam signed on April 1 requiring school systems to provide a full five days of in-person learning, with a virtual option. The new law will take effect July 1.

APS is encouraging in-person learning in the fall, but providing a remote option for those with health and other concerns.

“We encourage all students to return for in-person instruction and remain committed to providing safe learning environments in all schools; however, we know there are a variety of reasons why some families and students may need to continue learning remotely,” the APS website says.

If parents and guardians miss the Friday, April 30 deadline, APS will automatically place children in the in-person instructional model.

“Elementary school families will be able to change their decision after the first, second and third quarters of the school year,” the website said. “Middle and high school families will be able to change their decision after the first semester in January.”

A group of administrators, teachers and staff are developing a separate K-12 Distance Learning Program and APS will hire an administrator for the developing program this May. Eventually, this temporary option could become a permanent program for students who prefer learning at home.

Families and students who choose to continue in distance learning will be asked to provide reasons for their choice, according to the website.

“It is important to understand if students are not returning due to health and safety concerns, preference for the model, or if they will not return until their student and/or immediate family is vaccinated,” the school system says. “APS is committed to providing safe school environments so that all students feel comfortable and confident returning in person in the fall; however, we know there are a variety of reasons why families choose distance. We hope to gain more insight from those families.”

Data compiled by APS, below, shows that white students are most likely to have opted for hybrid in-person learning this semester, on average, while students of color, English learners, and economically disadvantaged students are more likely to have opted for distance learning.

During the April 8 School Board meeting, Vice Chair Barbara Kanninen called on APS to “be more proactive” reaching out to families about the school system’s mitigation measures and the safety of in-person education.

“I’m very worried about how we’re going to get them either to opt-in by the summer or fall, and how we’re going to encourage them,” Kanninen said.

Durán told the board that preferences may change now that the vaccine is more widely available.

Photos via APS

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COVID-19 outbreak investigations are currently ongoing at Washington-Liberty High School and another unnamed Arlington public school.

The W-L investigation started after four students tested positive between March 23-31.

“Based on guidance from the [Arlington County Public Health Department], we quarantined all students and staff who were in close contact with any of the individuals who tested positive,” said a letter to families from Zachary Pope, APS’s director of emergency management, and Principal Tony Hall. “All health and safety protocols were being followed at school, which allowed W-L staff to respond quickly with ACPHD to prevent further transmission,” they said.

Arlington County Public Health Department spokeswoman Jessica Baxter confirmed that investigations were underway at two schools, but declined to name them.

Over the last couple of months, Arlington Public Schools expanded access to two days of in-person instruction a week across all grade levels. In that time, the school system has reported 84 COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

APS declined to answer questions about COVID-19 cases because “it is private health-related information,” according to spokesperson Frank Bellavia.

But once one case is confirmed in a classroom, the entire class is sent home for up to two weeks of virtual learning while contact tracing is conducted, according to APS guidelines. Deciding whether an entire school should go virtual requires working closely with ACPHD, the guidance says.

This approach to identifying and quarantining students and staff — much like the reopening discussion thus far — has drawn support from some and frustration from others, who see the policy affecting too many students on the periphery of a case.

Across the school system, APS has reported 63 positive cases and eight cases where information is “not available” among students since March, when most started returning to classrooms.

Among teachers — who returned in February — and other school employees, there have been 21 reported positive cases. Of those, 13 cases are among teachers and eight cases are among staff.

So far, the central APS office at Syphax Education Center and the school system’s transportation department, which operates school buses, have the highest number of cases, with four each.

Views about the school system’s reporting of and response to COVID-19 cases vary among School Board contenders and parents.

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