Letter to the Editor: Alexandria Parent Says “Decision by the school board is reckless” to Change Social Distancing to Three Feet

[Editor’s Note: This letter was submitted to The Zebra on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 and is unedited.]

Two schoolgirls in medical masks are sitting at a school desk, opposite each other, group session, back to school, teaching children, social distance during epidemic. (Photo licensed to The Zebra Press by Adobe Stock)
Two schoolgirls social distancing during pandemic. (Photo licensed to The Zebra Press by Adobe Stock)

ALEXANDRIA, VA — I’m a parent of two children (a 3rd and 5th grader) that are enrolled in Douglas MacArthur Elementary School (DMES).  I would like to open this letter by saying that, throughout the pandemic, I have been very impressed with how Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) has handled the uncertainty.  Yes, things were a little rocky when the rug was pulled out from under us last March, but during it all, I really do think the teachers and schools have done their best to support parents.  Obviously there are a lot of ways that families can fall through the cracks in our current system, but the speed at which laptops were distributed, internet access was made available to those who needed it, and supplies were provided for free really helped families like ours that were put in pretty uncertain situations.

I also really appreciated the approach ACPS took to figuring out a reopening plan.  With a weekly update that looked at the actual science of how our state and city were handling the pandemic, it was refreshing to see our schools evaluate the trends and safety concerns for our children and teachers and make their decisions based on actual evidence.

I will admit that I was taken aback by the initial decisions to reopen when we did.  Given how poorly most of the country was trending when the decision was made, it seemed foolish in my opinion to make the hard date of 3/16/2021 for students to return.  It was pretty clear that this decision was made less based on science and more on the fact that it had been exactly a year since we started virtual learning.

Still, based on the video ACPS produced to give students and parents of what a hybrid day would look and the safety measures in place to ensure that students, teachers and staff were not put in a dangerous environment, we opted to let our children return to the classroom.  And up until now, that has also seemed incredibly safe.  From the drop-off procedures to on-going communication with parents to keeping schooling virtual the week following spring break, I have not yet regretted that decision.

Until now, that is.  I learned late on the evening of Monday 4/12, buried almost 6 paragraphs into an email from the DMES principal Penny Hairston (subject line: “Weekly Updates- April Showers!”), that the school board voted on Thursday 4/8 to reduce social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet.  This was done despite several assurances from the school over the last month that you would be keeping the 6 feet distance throughout the school year:

  • video from Dr. Hutchings and Dr. Haering, posted to YouTube on 3/17, where Dr. Haering recommends keeping the 6 ft distance, as “[m]ost of the data is showing that six feet of distance is the safest” and calls this distance the “gold standard”
  • An email from news@acps.k12.va.uson 4/7 (subject line: “ACPS Express: New ACPS COVID-19 Dashboard and School Board Vote on New School Names”), less than a week ago, where Dr. Hutchings said “[a]t this time, we are using six feet of physical distance and are continuing to work to determine how the revised guidelines impact ACPS”. Later in the email, it’s stated that “ACPS is maintaining six feet of physical distancing through the remainder of the school year based on public health guidance and operational considerations.”

This decision by the school board is reckless and puts not only students and faculty at greater risk, but also our community at large.  At a time when experts agree we’re entering a fourth wave of the virus due to our rushed reopenings, reducing the distance between students in an effort to cram more children into the classroom is, quite frankly, insane.  This is especially true given how many states are currently experiencing spikes directly linked to schools reopening:

And that’s not to mention the news the morning of 4/13 that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being put on hold, likely further extending the timeline for achieving mass immunity from the virus.

Quite frankly, I do not know if my wife and I will continue to send my children to in-person learning when this takes place.  And that’s a real shame…they have really enjoyed being back and seeing friends, but this decision puts them, their peers, and their teachers at risk. I wish the school board actually advocated for the safety of their faculty and their students, instead of bowing down to pressure from parents who care less about the risk to our community than they do about getting “back to normal”.

As I am writing this letter, I am attending a joint ACPS / Alexandria Health Department town hall to learn more about the decision process.  This town hall, I should note, was conveniently scheduled with no advance notice, during the middle of the work day, and seemingly only announced via a text message.  And I should also note that the town hall opened by defining “close contact” as something who was “within 6 feet of a COVID-19 case.”

I do recognize I have privilege in this decision; my wife is a stay at home mother, and I’ve been able to work remotely to help support our family.  But not every family has that same privilege, and will likely have to make the hard decision whether they keep their kids in school.

I just wish, when the school board decided to “give families a choice”, they thought about those families as well.

Thank you-

Andy Behr

IN THE NEWS: Alexandria Expands Vaccination Eligibility to 16 Years and Over

1 COMMENT

  1. This article is not pulling in other data like mental health, mortality rate among children, rate of teacher vaccination (yes- many have received it and not gone back to school), crime rate, drop in grades, etc – children need to be in school and there are things that can be done to greatly mitigate risk. Private schools in the area have been very successful in bringing kids back. Here is a quote from the McLean Article:

    MCHD public affairs coordinator Marianne Manko said youth sports, particularly those played indoors, are driving the spike.

    “We are finding more and more younger students who have been exposed to sporting events that (have) a lot of direct, face-to-face contact are now in isolation,” she said.

    Manko added increased travel also is a factor in the higher caseload based on recent contact tracing, but she said it’s not clear how much of that is tied to spring break travel.

    “Our schools are doing a good job of keeping people isolated and the spread isn’t occurring inside the schools,” Manko said.

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