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As one Virginia school district prepares to reopen, educators and families balance Covid precautions and normal instruction

Rose Moore stands in front of a classroom, training a teacher about technology and safety for in-person learning.

It’s the 44th time the assistant principal at Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, has done this in recent weeks, meticulously explaining everything from the acrylic glass barrier in front of the teacher’s desk to how to use a new classroom camera for hybrid lessons.

Half of the class will be there physically, with the other half watching from home.

This week, public schools in the county will open their classroom doors for the first time in almost a year. It’s a hybrid model — students in each grade will be in the school just two days a week.

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand says that is the most this large suburban Washington, DC, school district can do while still following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe school re-opening. The county is currently in the red zone.

He says the Biden administration goal of kindergarten through eighth grade returning five days a week by the end of the President’s first 100 days in office is “not realistic.”

The biggest hurdle is spacing desks six feet apart.

“Practically, that means the difference between two days a week and five days a week,” he said. “And so we need clearer national discussion. Every superintendent in this country wants even clearer guidance from the CDC about social distancing, with universal masks wearing, with other school mitigation strategies. Can we come in less than six feet?”

When CNN spoke to Brabrand last summer as they were planning for school to start in the fall, he said it would take “five Pentagons of additional space if six feet is the standard” for students to be in school safely five days a week.

Now he says that if the CDC revised its social distance recommendations to just three feet apart, along with other Covid mitigation strategies like mask wearing, only then would he feel comfortable having enough space to bring the entire student body back full time.

“To get to five days a week, we need to be able to have data that helps inform us that less than six feet coupled with other mitigation strategies can safely return students to school. Not only in person, but in person for five days,” he said.

Earlier this month, the CDC released guidelines for reopening schools that focused on five main strategies: the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

Prepping for Covid safe schools

First-year math teacher Leon Riddick says he is looking forward to finally meeting students in person. Like most teachers during the coronavirus crisis, he has spent a lot of this difficult school year acting as a part-time counselor to frustrated students.

“I try to get them to calm down and say, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be long when we can come back into the classroom again and everything will be back normal again.’ “

Riddick is fully vaccinated, which he said makes his family more comfortable with him returning to the school.

Margaret Barnes, Holmes’ principal, says because of HIPAA laws, she isn’t sure how many of her teachers have received the vaccine, but concedes some are still concerned.

“Before I talk about anything, we talk about safety. We’re still tightening up procedures. That’s what keeps me up at night is, how are we going to keep the kids distanced when they’re coming off the bus?” Barnes said.

This coming week, 80 eighth grade students will be in school per day. As sixth and seventh grade students return in the coming weeks, that will climb to 240 students at school on any given day.

In order to limit contact while the students change classes, the times will be staggered.

Yellow tape now runs down the middle of each hallway like the lines in the center of the road in order to keep foot traffic orderly, like a two-way street.

The principal’s biggest concern, however, is the cafeteria. It’s the one place where masks are off so the students can eat.

Giant Xs made of masking tape adorn most of the stools at each table, blocking off space to make sure students sit six feet apart. They will now be in assigned seats, in order to help with Covid-19 contact tracing if there are positive cases.

“I can’t just come to the cafeteria and sit with my friend who’s in another class. She might be assigned to the lecture hall. She might be assigned to a table across the cafeteria. So it definitely does change that dynamic,” said Barnes.

More than half of students opted not to come back

Despite virtual learning frustrations and drawbacks, there’s a divide here on whether to go back at all. Only 45% of students opted to return to school, according to Barnes. The other 55% will stay home full time.

“It does surprise me, but I also think they’re concerned that the numbers are still high. We’re still in that red zone for numbers per a hundred thousand for infection, but we also don’t have a vaccination yet for students.”

That split runs right through the Porter family, whose sixth-grade twin girls made different decisions. Elizabeth will return to school for hybrid learning.

“I want to socialize with more people and I made some friends on online school, and I want to meet them,” said 12-year-old Elizabeth Porter.

But her twin sister Katharine wants to stay home virtually learning full time.

“We’re a classic example of strong, mixed opinions,” said their mother Jennifer Porter.

“I don’t want my child to be in a position at school where they’re spending more time worrying about their exposure risks than actually focusing on the education that they’re going there for,” she added, referring to her daughter Katharine, who is much more cautious about Covid-19.

Before CNN visited her family in Alexandria, Virginia, Jennifer Porter did some of her own reporting — asking neighborhood parents in an online chat board how they feel about sending their children back to school now, even just a couple of days a week.

“I got lots of responses, lots of responses,” she emphasized with a knowing smile.

“They were all over the board. And some people message me privately because they want it to be anonymous. They didn’t want to be judged by their neighbors, for their opinion. Some people were really succinct in, ‘I’m for it. I’m against it.’ And other people had lots of opinions and they really spelled out the background for their opinions,” she said.

Porter has a third daughter in high school, and said she was so inundated with emails from school that it was hard to sort through them. Her older daughter couldn’t figure out why her Spanish teacher stopped showing up for online class until she realized she missed one email telling her that the teacher left and the schedule had changed.

An attorney with a demanding job, Porter said she made time in her schedule to join the school PTA at Holmes Middle School with the hope of learning more about the school’s Covid-related decision-making process that affect her twin sixth graders.

“I have really found that being on the board of the PTA has been very instrumental in me actually knowing what the heck’s going on at school,” said Porter.

“Virtual school as a whole, I think is (bad) for our kids. My approach and thought about this year is we’re getting through and we’re getting the best that we can out of it. But I equally feel like we’re just gutting it out,” she said.

‘Being shamed to return to school is not a strategy’

Last summer, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos singled out Fairfax County, Virginia, as one that she said was not doing enough to open schools.

Brabrand said that — plus other pressures at the state and local level — made an already tough decision-making process even harder.

“Every superintendent in the country has been under pressure from everybody. It is probably the most politically intense time that any school superintendent or any even school principal has felt in a lifetime,” said Brabrand.

“Being shamed to return to school is not a strategy for how to return kids and staff safely,” he said, referring to the overt pressure from the Trump administration.

He said he and other superintendents feel they have more of a partner in the current President, but the political divide and mixed messages about school re-openings still linger and make it harder to find consensus.

“We’ve turned returning to school in person into a political issue instead of the educational issue that it is. And if we stay on it around being an educational issue, and if we stay on it based guided on science and health, we’ll get to the right place. But we’ve had many messages from many different places that have confused our community instead of bringing unity to our community and divided our community. And it’s time to really get away from the politics of fear and talk about the politics of inclusion and bringing all of our kids and our families back,” said Brabrand.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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