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'Please open schools! I want to learn!' | Arlington families demand specific school reopening dates

Arlington Parents for Education held a rally Saturday, calling for Arlington Public Schools to get more students back into the classroom.

ARLINGTON, Va. — After more than 300 days of virtual learning, some Arlington Public Schools families are demanding a return to the classroom for their students.

About 150 people came out for the Arlington Parents for Education's rally Saturday at Quincy Park, where both parents and students spoke about the hardships they've faced with virtual learning.

“It’s been hard," fifth grader Katie Cuthbertson said. "It’s really hard to interact and talk to my teacher privately about what I need to work on, and she can’t help me if I’m struggling in certain subjects."

Katie's younger sister, Ashley, who attends second grade at APS, said she has also struggled with communicating with her teacher virtually, "because sometimes she glitches out."

Others said they've struggled to stare at a computer screen all day when virtual learning.

"I feel exhausted and have a terrible headache," one student said.

Many parents said they support their teachers and have admired them for their work this school year, but it's time for more people to get back into schools.

“I love our teachers," Katie and Ashley's mom, Amanda Cuthbertson, said. "If we can provide them a level of comfort with masks, hand washing, let’s make it safe for the teachers, and let’s bring children back.”

RELATED: Virginia educators worry decline in public school enrollment could impact funding

Cuthbertson and other parents at Saturday's rally are demanding specific return dates for their children — soon, not in March or the fall.

"I need them to stop moving the goalposts. Hybrid school is viable. I need them to do what they promised. They promised they were operationally preparing in September, so what have you been doing for months while I have been working and teaching and trying to teach my own child?” Dr. Deanna Caputo, parent of two APS students, said.

In a statement, superintendent for Arlington Public Schools, Dr. Francisco Duran, said in part: "There is a lot to weigh and no decisions have been made. My commitment to the health and safety of students and staff remains and I will not announce dates until we are ready and confident in mitigation and operational readiness for larger groups of our staff and students."

A spokesperson for Arlington Public Schools said staff will start coming back on Monday for a week to prepare for the return of students.

Dr. Duran said on February 2, the district will welcome back Career & Technical Education students enrolled in specific courses at the Career Center. He said those students, as well as Level 1 students who have been in person since November, will attend classes in person "with effective mitigation and health and safety procedures in place."

Within the last two weeks, the state also released new guidelines for a safe return to schools. One component is a decision matrix that calls for priority learners (early learners, students with disabilities, and English-language learners) to be in classrooms unless both community transmission and school impact, which involves outbreak data and staff capacity, are high.

RELATED: As coronavirus cases continue surge, Gov. Northam tells Virginia schools to prepare for reopening

Credit: VDOE
The Virginia Department of Education recently released new school reopening guidelines that include a decision matrix for bringing students back into classrooms.

Dr. Caputo is also a psychologist and has recognized signs of mental health distress in her oldest son throughout the pandemic.

“I have a depressed fourth grader, and there’s nothing worse than knowing that your child is struggling and not being able to help them any further than I can," she said. "He was an active student, enjoyed going to school … by the end of October, he was refusing to do his assignments.”

She wants APS to give the impact on students' mental health more weight in reopening decisions. Furthermore, she said she has gone back to work safely, so she believes schools can do the same.

"Please open schools! I want to learn!" one student said to the crowd.

Read Dr. Duran's full statement here:

"We have not yet made a final decision on the dates for additional students to return. We continue to take a measured, gradual approach to phasing students in and have staff returning in person next week and the week of Feb. 1 to prepare for the eventual return of more students. We are continuing to see rising COVID-19 cases in our community and are watching the metrics and all data very closely. APS is working with the Virginia Department of Education and following public health guidance to make decisions regarding our operating status.

The vaccine is one factor in a broad range of factors that impact decisions — there are risks in opening to more students now, just as there are risks to waiting and to not serving those students in person. I have to carefully weigh the science and data, the examples of other systems that have opened successfully with effective mitigation, the risks to students who data shows us are truly struggling in this pandemic, and the guidance of the state which released new guidelines to open safely. There is a lot to weigh and no decisions have been made. My commitment to the health and safety of students and staff remains and I will not announce dates until we are ready and confident in mitigation and operational readiness for larger groups of our staff and students."

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