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Fairfax elementary parents worry for safety of students not eligible for vaccination

The school system said they're now asking elementary schools to provide a cafeteria seating chart to minimize unmasked close contacts.

SPRINGFIELD, Va. — As thousands of Fairfax County Public Schools students headed to their first day back in class, some elementary parents worry for the safety of kids who can't be vaccinated yet.

Nisha Shendrikar has a daughter who just started fifth grade.

“Happy that she's back in school with her friends and her teachers but anxious about the whole COVID process," Shendrikar said.

Some parents say they're more than anxious -- they're terrified.

“My daughter is unvaccinated, and she has gone back to an elementary school where we are not socially distant," Hillary Turner said. "There are periods of the day where the children are unmasked.”

Turner has a daughter entering second grade -- the first time she's stepped inside of a school building in a year and a half.

Not only does she worry about her daughter's safety, but for their entire family.

“We actually have a ...family member who is going through chemotherapy right now," Turner said. "So that's, you know, it's intense, it knocks out your immune system and COVID is so new. There's really no great data on how cancer patients do and how well the vaccine actually works for them.”

RELATED: FCPS parents 'cautiously optimistic' about first day of school

Shendrikar suspects she had COVID in December 2019 and still regularly has trouble breathing.

She doesn't want her daughter to experience that.

“Even though they say kids don't get it as bad as adults. We don't know long term, if that's going to be the case," she said. "She could have breathing issues for the rest of her life. And right now she's only 9. So that's my largest concern.”

For her part, Turner wishes the school system had offered a virtual or hybrid option for families like hers.

FCPS has taken other mitigation measures, including mandating vaccines for staff and masking for everyone.

Still, masks will be off as kids eat.

To help combat exposure, the district said they have added a new step for elementary schools -- providing cafeteria seating charts to limit the number of potential close contacts while unmasked.

FCPS said it also has "189 tents currently installed or being installed to be used for outdoor classrooms/lunches, and they'll be utilizing all spaces in the cafeteria, outdoors, and other places throughout the building to implement physical distancing to the greatest extent possible for lunch, including eating lunch in classrooms and in other designated spaces throughout the school such as the gym, or lecture halls, as well as outdoor spaces. Some schools are utilizing Plexiglass dividers to separate students while eating in the cafeteria."

Turner said she's still nervous picking up her daughter from school each day, but they'll just do their best.

“We're gonna come home, we're going to wash our hands, we're going to change our clothes, and we're going to get on with our life," she said. "Because that's the cards we've been dealt.”

Another parent, Leslie Forte, shared a few other concerns via email: "FCPS put in place policies that would have possibly worked for the 2020 strain by ignoring the emerging dangers of the 2021 strain of COVID. Being too slow or unwilling to adapt and protect the vulnerable harms everyone in our community."

She also worries for what will happen with learning loss when students are forced to quarantine at home for two weeks after catching COVID.

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