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.