What schools in Northern Virginia could look like when they return

Desks separated for physical distancing to visualize the reduction in classroom capacity. (Courtesy FCPS)

School districts in Northern Virginia are preparing for a number of different scenerios for how students and staff will return to school in the fall. Some are working together and looking to new Centers for Disease Control guidelines suggesting how to implement social distancing measures in the classroom.

Plans have been in the works for more than a month in Loudoun County, according to Superintendent Eric Williams who reviewed the CDC guidelines for returning to school released Tuesday, May 19.

“The CDC guidelines reinforce we’re on the right track, Williams told WTOP. “For example their references to transportation and meal service and physical distancing.”

Loudoun is planning for three scenerios: continuing distance learning, a combination in-person and distance learning, and a full return to in-person learning.

“One of the most significant implications with a combination of in-person and distance learning is that because we need to implement physical-distancing measures, we won’t be able to have 100% utilization of building capacity,” he said, adding that they’ll look to guidance from the Virginia Department of Health on building occupancy.

Distance learning is the lowest risk option for exposing students, staff and the school community to any community spread of COVID-19, according to the guidelines. Risk escalates as more people return to one building.

In a board meeting earlier this month, Fairfax County’s Board of Education shared it too is considering three scenarios for ‘Back to School’ operations: distance learning 2.0, returning with social distancing, and the third option if some staff and students are unable to return for personal reasons.

Both school districts plan to release more details in June.

“One way we can help people deal with that ambiguity is with frequent updates. So we have shared information about our planning process with the community and are committed to providing additional details in about a month about the situation that we’re looking at,” Williams said.

His district is working with others in the Northern Virginia Regional Commission including Arlington County, Alexandria City, Falls Church, Fairfax County and others for the potential of a common approach to reopening, Williams said.

A huge consideration for the larger school districts is transportation. In its board meeting presentation, Fairfax County’s School Board outlined what social distancing would mean on school buses. In high school and middle schools, it will reduce the bus capacity by 50 percent, requiring the district to use another 779 busses on top of its existing 1192 fleet.

There is also the consideration of classroom capacity, which Fairfax estimates will result in an average of 12-students per classroom.

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