Following the Coronavirus Pandemic that shut schools down in Fairfax County in early March, schools are attempting to reopen once again, and have reopened for small numbers starting in the beginning of October.
Fairfax County decided at the start of the school year to remain virtual and err on the side of caution as they came up with a plan in order to ensure the safety of students. Some states have opened more slowly than others, New York City schools opened as they traditionally would, but are now shut down again.
This plan, like others around the state, includes a phased in approach to the return. Students are divided into groups in order to determine when they go back to in person. At the moment, West Po is planning to return to in person classes around February 2nd as part of the last group of students.
Return began with Group 1 included certain academy classes that required in school instruction—like nursing or EMT classes—and they returned in small numbers on October 5th, around 40 students according to the FCPS website. Pre-school Autism and other special needs students returned as well as English as a Second Language (ESOL) students and more academy classes in October as parts of Groups 2 and 3. These groups made up about 5,000 students, however Group 3 has recently been returned to all virtual learning. However, due to an increase in COVID Cases, many of these groups and have been sent back to all virtual, with Group 1 set to return again along with Groups 2-5 on January 12th.
The rest of the students, all other Elementary, Middle School, and High School students, which totals a little more than 94,000 students, either do not have a return to school date at the moment, or are “tentatively set” for late January and early February returns.
As these groups return to school, they will return to a modified schedule. Rather than attending school for 5 days a week like last year, Fairfax County is maintaining the teacher work day asynchronous study on Mondays, meaning the building will only be open to students 4 days a week. The students will be split into 3 groups before returning to school in order to lessen the number of people in the building and allow for social distancing to be followed.
Group 1 will go to school in person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while Group 2 will attend in person on Thursday and Fridays. Group 3 will remain virtual at all times, since students in that group elected not to return to school. For West Po and other High Schools and Middle Schools, Tuesdays and Thursdays will stay odd days and Wednesdays and Fridays will stay even days.
“I would very much like to go back to school, [because] it is extremely hard for me to learn online,” Nicole Caldwell, a senior at Hayfield Secondary School said.
However, while many students in Fairfax County would like to return to school, there are still major concerns for the individual schools to deal with. This is especially true for schools like West Po, which is overcapacity even without the COVID restrictions that will have to be enforced upon return to school.
According to Principal Tangy Millard, West Po classrooms with social distancing restrictions, normally, can fit 10-12 kids, which doesn’t fit the amount of kids in that class that want to come back.
“When you do the [group] split to everybody, [the room] might work where there’s only 10 kids going into that particular space, but on the other day when you do the [group] split, it’s 15 kids that you need to fit in a room that only holds 10,” Millard said.
According to Millard, this problem was set to be addressed in a school board meeting on December 10.
“[Space] has been the issue from the beginning. But for whatever reason it wasn’t talked about. Many schools are going to run into the same problem…There are some schools where 75% of their student population have chosen to come back in person, and even though they’re not over capacity, they have a large number of kids that will come back and their rooms just can’t fit them.”
This battle with space is made only slightly easier by the fact that some students, that will make up Group 3, have chosen to remain virtual, often for health reasons.
“I’m definitely continuing virtual,” 11th grader Niya Kedir said, “Not because I want to, but because my parents have health issues which could be really bad if I did end up getting COVID.”
The risk of catching COVID has also impacted the staffing at schools like West Po. Teachers had to make the decision about whether or not they were returning to school on October 30, and according to Millard, about 64% of teachers have agreed to come back. Some who have medical disabilities can refuse to come back through the Americans with Disabilities Act, and remain teaching virtually. However, this still requires the school to hire a “monitor” that will come in to watch the students who are attending in person while their teacher instructs them online.
There is a smaller sect of teachers at West Po that do not qualify for the accommodations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but either have small children or family that they can’t leave alone or are at higher risk that they don’t want to risk exposing. This group of teachers are forced to either take a leave of absence, retire, or resign. Which according to Millard creates a huge staffing problem as the school then has to find an entirely new teacher for those classes.
Once the return to school is complete, Fairfax County will use a set of metrics to determine whether or not they can remain open.
“The two [metrics] that we’re looking at currently are cases per 100,000 … and percent positive test rate [over 14 days],” Millard said.
The rise in cases has caused walk backs in some groups going from in person back to virtual and a concern as to whether the later groups of middle and high school can return on schedule on February 2nd.
“[The cases per 100,000] has been well over the 200 benchmark for over two weeks now and the percent positive test rate getting close to 10% [the threshold]. So if that keeps happening, [the positive rate] keeps growing the way that it’s been, and you take into consideration winter break, people being out and about and doing family things, it is possible that the 10% [positivity rate] and that well above 200 [number for cases per 100,000] continues to grow. By the time we hit January, if both those metrics are in play as being high, the district will have to push [start dates] back.”