‘The best day ever’: Thousands of students return to Alexandria classrooms

students head to class
Students head to class in Alexandria on the first day of classes. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings of Alexandria City Public Schools with a student
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings of Alexandria City Public Schools helps a student at George Washington Middle School find where she’s going on the 1st day of school. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

George Washington Middle School in Alexandria
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, all students are welcomed back at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria on Aug. 24, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Students with backpacks head into George Washington Middle School for classes in Alexandria on Aug. 24, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Students with backpacks head into George Washington Middle School for classes in Alexandria on Aug. 24, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

George Washington Middle School in Alexandria
George Washington Middle School in Alexandria is seen on the first day of school, Aug. 24, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

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students head to class
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings of Alexandria City Public Schools with a student
George Washington Middle School in Alexandria
Students with backpacks head into George Washington Middle School for classes in Alexandria on Aug. 24, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
George Washington Middle School in Alexandria

Thousands of students in Alexandria, Virginia, are heading back to school Tuesday — for many students, it’s the first time back in classrooms since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

”This is like the best day ever,” enthused Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, greeting students at George Washington Middle School on Mt. Vernon Avenue.

Classrooms will be at full capacity; in-person athletics and other after-school activities are resuming, and buses are running their regular routes, but there are plenty of COVID-19-related changes, too.

In line with an order from state health authorities, all Virginia students and teachers are required to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. Health officials issued the K-12 mask mandate earlier this month after some districts, including Fauquier County Public Schools, bucked earlier recommendations to continue masking amid the spread of the more infectious delta variant.

In Alexandria, masks are required for everyone inside school buildings and facilities and on school buses, according to the school system’s back-to-school plans.

”Masks are helpful in mitigation,” said Hutchings. “Especially since we’re not able to social distance in our schools.”

There will be normal capacity inside classrooms and on school buses to minimize delays. The school system plans to use cafeteria space “to the greatest extent” and to maintain distancing during lunch when students, naturally, are unmasked.

Masks are not required outside for recess, but schools will consider “podding” classes at recess — splitting students off into smaller groups — for contact tracing purposes.

”We’re podding students for lunch, so that we can ensure that the same groups are together. We’re minimizing the number of students that are in our cafeterias, to hopefully minimize the amount of transmission that could potentially happen in our school buildings,” said Hutchings.

Keeping the students in pods is intended to help control spread of the coronavirus.

”We’re also taking rosters of students, and where they’re located, so if we have a situation where anyone tests positive, it makes our contact tracing a little easier,” Hutchings said.

Principals are empowered to configure their buildings, based on the school system’s public health guidelines.

”That’s one thing we have been very adamant about, not having a universal kind of solution, because all of our schools are different sizes, with different size kids, different grade levels, and different structures within the buildings,” said Hutchings.

In addition, teachers and staff will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to submit to regular testing, following a decision last week by the Alexandria City School Board.

Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she believes the requirement is being well-received by the community.

“Our community is very excited about school opening but also anxious, and so any measures that we can put in place including the mask wearing, including the requirement for vaccination or weekly testing is really helping to get people a bit more comfortable with the situation,” she said.

As of earlier this summer, about 93% of families said they were planning to have students attend classes in person across the school system’s 15 schools.

There is a virtual learning option, through the Virginia Department of Education, “Virtual Virginia,” but families had to select this option for the fall semester by July 15, and no new enrollments for the fall are being accepted. This fall, families will have the opportunity to select virtual learning for the spring 2022 semester.

”We have a little over 500 students doing our virtual learning this year, out of about 16,000 students,” Hutchings said.

Nearly 300,000 students in Northern Virginia returned to classrooms Monday as school systems in Fairfax and Prince William counties resumed in-person classes in large numbers.

Later this week, students in Loudoun County, Virginia, will return to in-person classes. Next week, even more systems in the D.C. area resume classes: Arlington County, Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and D.C.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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