FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — As thousands of Fairfax County Public Schools students start the new school year Monday, some parents still have lingering COVID concerns.
Above all, though, parents and their kids are excited to be back in the classroom five days a week.
“I am cautiously optimistic," parent of two Stephanie Katavolos said. "I think it's absolutely vital for children's social and emotional well being that they get back to school. But that absolutely has to be balanced with good and sensible science.”
She has a son heading into seventh grade and a daughter starting fourth grade.
As of Sunday evening, Fairfax and Loudoun are the only two counties in Northern Virginia with "substantial" -- not "high" -- COVID transmission, according to the CDC's tracker.
On Friday, the school system imposed a vaccine mandate for staff with the alternative to submit to routine COVID testing. Everyone will be required to wear masks inside as students head back to class full-time.
Some elementary students feel heightened concern, though, since kids under 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine at this time.
“That population is unprotected," Katavolos said. "And so it's all the more essential to follow the science.”
Not all parents share the vaccine worry.
“Our biggest concerns probably are less about illness and more about just continuity in school staying open," mother of three Katie Friesen said.
Friesen has three daughters -- one entering kindergarten, another second grade, and the oldest fourth grade.
“I don't think that they're going to be more at risk in the classroom than they would be just at home or at daycare, or going to the grocery store," parent Eric Hooks said. He has kids in kindergarten, first grade and daycare.
The teachers and staff union, the Fairfax Education Association, which pushed for caution last year, voiced mixed emotions.
“The anxiety level of our staff is high because… you've got our staff meetings this past week with hundreds of staff in some buildings together in a cafeteria or auditorium space. That was nerve racking for many," FEA president Kimberly Adams said. "And then day one, on Monday, tomorrow, it's going to be one of those, you know, moments where you just have to muster up all the courage and do our best.”
She hopes schools don't have to close again but said she trusts the superintendent, school board, and school leaders to stay in touch as they assess the safest approach throughout the year.
Some parents also shared concerns about class sizes being up to 30 students, desks being seated close together with little to no social distancing, and poor ventilation in some classrooms.
Katavolos is working with some other parents in her daughter's class to raise money for an air purifier. She hopes the school system allocates funds to provide one for each class by winter.