A request that Arlington County Board members use their influence – whether through sweet-talking or something more forceful – to get county schools back up and running fell largely on deaf ears Dec. 12.
Board members said they were working with their School Board counterparts, but had no power to force a reopening of schools that have been shuttered since last March.
Acknowledging for the record that the situation is “really, really frustrating,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said the county government was providing resources to make an eventual back-to-class rollout possible, but the final say on resuming classes was not theirs.
“We really are providing all we can,” said Garvey, a former School Board member who, in her re-election bid this year, occasionally opined on the need to get classes back in operation.
Garvey’s comments came in response to remarks from Erin Neal, representing Arlington Parents for Education, a group that is pushing for getting students back in class.
“Arlington has been witness to the sorry politics of abdication” of leadership, Neal said. “We have to begin to build back public trust, and science-based policy is the first step.”
Neal said schools could be reopened safely if there was robust COVID testing of teachers and staff, and contact-tracing when outbreaks appear.
But County Board member Christian Dorsey countered that the County Board wasn’t the appropriate venue for get-back-to-class activism.
“We just don’t agree that’s our role,” he said. “Our role is to provide the best ideas for whatever course [school leaders] choose. We’re not abdicating that responsibility at all.”
Not long after President Trump in late June issued a loud call for classrooms to be reopened at the start of the 2020-21 school year, Arlington Public Schools (under the leadership of new Superintendent Francisco Durán) became the first jurisdiction in the region to announce an online-only return to class.
School leaders across the region appear to have been cowed by leaders of educator unions, who have been vocally against reopening of classrooms even though their rank-and-file is far more split on the matter.
While small numbers of specific groups are being given some in-person instruction in Arlington’s schools, the vast majority of the district remains locked down, even though a majority of parents continue to support the option of an in-class alternative to online learning – learning that, by most accounts, is turning out to be inferior to what can be obtained in classrooms.
The online learning at least is attempting to follow regular curriculum; the policy of the county school system last spring (under interim superintendent Cintia Johnson) was to not teach students anything new for the remaining three months of the 2019-20 school year because doing so wouldn’t be fair – “equitable” in government-speak – to those students who didn’t have easy access to online-learning tools.
(That approach, which a number of school officials including Durán tacitly acknowledged later had been a mistake, was dubbed by critics the “all children left behind” approach to education.)
Perhaps because of all the confusion that has ensued since COVID made its unwelcome arrival nine months ago, Arlington Public Schools has seen a decline in its student body of about 5 percent this year, as parents move children to private and parochial schools, or areas outside Northern Virginia, where in-person instruction is taking place.
A few local jurisdictions that did try in recent times to bring some students back to class – Falls Church and Loudoun County among them – have subsequently backtracked as a new wave of COVID-19 infections rolled through the region in recent weeks. Private schools that started the school year with some in-person classes, however, largely have stayed the course with them.
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