A sign outside Langley High School in Fairfax County on election day calls for Fairfax County Public Schools to open.

A sign outside Langley High School in Fairfax County on election day calls for Fairfax County Public Schools to open.

On Monday, November 9, D.C. Public Schools planned on returning over 20,000 students to the classroom for in-person instruction, but delayed those plans after protest from parents, teachers and school principals. So, what is their plan now? And what are other area school districts planning to do? Will Fairfax County Public Schools stick with returning all students to the classroom at the end of January despite a rise in Covid-19 cases?

Europe is also seeing a rise in Covid cases, but they’re keeping schools open while shutting down or restricting businesses like restaurants. Is the U.S. approach to all this backwards? Should we go the European route and open schools and close businesses?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Debbie Truong Education Reporter, WAMU; @debbietruong
  • Anya Kamenetz Education Correspondent, NPR, author, “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life”; @anya1anya
  • Julie Shepard Military Families Chair, Fairfax County Council PTA, Advocacy Chair, Northern Virginia District PTA; @fccpta


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we're talking money sense on Kojo For Kids with The Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist, Michelle Singletary. But first, across the region as coronavirus cases spike, the debate about in-person learning is raging. In Fairfax County, parents on both sides of the issue have been holding rallies and protests. The county aims to make concurrent learning work with in-person and virtual schooling happening simultaneously.

  • 12:00:32

    KOJO NNAMDIThousands of kids are already back in classrooms including some low income schools and special needs students who struggle to learn virtually. And this week, thousands more will return in-person. And in early December first and second graders are slated to return with a full return of all students to classrooms in January. Meanwhile the District reversed plans for more kids to return to in-person this month after a pushback from teachers and parents. Joining us now is Debbie Truong, who is WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:05

    DEBBIE TRUONGThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:01:06

    NNAMDIFairfax County Schools is the largest school district in our region, Debbie. What's happening there as our region grapples with when to return to school in-person?

  • 12:01:16

    TRUONGSure. Like you said Fairfax County Public Schools is the largest school system in Virginia. Small groups of students there have been learning in-person since October. I guess for contexts the school system has about 185,000 students and about 8,000 of those students have been learning in-person. This week another 6800 students mostly kindergarten and preschool students are expected to return. And the school system is planning on phasing in more students over the next couple of months with tentative plans to provide some form of in-person learning to all students by the end January.

  • 12:01:56

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Julie Shepard, the Military Families Chair with the Fairfax County PTA and the Advocacy Chair for the Northern Virginia District PTA. Julie Shepard, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:09

    JULIE SHEPARDThank you, Kojo. I'm glad to be here today to talk about schools in Fairfax.

  • 12:02:15

    NNAMDIIndeed, Fairfax County appears split on this issue. In recent days there have been rallies and protests on both sides. What are the issues and what are you hearing from parents?

  • 12:02:25

    SHEPARDThank you, Kojo. As a PTA, we actually represent all of our families and we like to work collaboratively together with the school district for a safe return to school. So we're hearing from parents that some of their children are thriving in virtual learning, but many are also really struggling. Students with disabilities are having reduced service hours. There's military kids who have moved here during COVID, who aren't making connections, and many, many concerns of mental health for our students.

  • 12:02:58

    SHEPARDOne of the things that Virginia PTA has been advocating for for a while and we hope that the general assembly will fund the $50 million for our school counselors that was cut from last session. We really think that would make a big difference here.

  • 12:03:12

    NNAMDIWell, you mentioned that some children are thriving in the virtual environment. We got an email from Mary in Alexandria who writes, "We're a military family that was new to the area in the summer of 2019. We chose the 100 percent virtual option for the year to ensure consistency and prevent the back and forth with potential exposure and follow on quarantine. Virtual learning has helped my extroverted child flourish. The investment FCPS has put into technology and digital programming is phenomenal. My child's program is robust."

  • 12:03:45

    NNAMDISo you're right. Some children are flourishing in that environment, but according to what Mary wrote and according to what we know, families can opt out if they don't feel comfortable returning to school. Do you have a sense, Julie Shepard of how many will opt out and how are schools going to accommodate concurrent learning with classrooms split between in-person and virtual?

  • 12:04:06

    SHEPARDSo I don't really have that number. The school district resurveyed the families in the beginning of November asking them whether they wanted to return or not return in the building. And they made their decisions based on the metrics that were previously defined that five percent positivity rate. And at last week's school board meeting, the school district announced that they were increasing that to ten percent positivity rate. So there's a lot of parent anxiety now over how that's going to work because they made their commitment before that was announced.

  • 12:04:43

    SHEPARDSo I understand that concern. I'm not really sure what it's going to look like in a concurrent model. I know there's a lot of teacher anxiety related to this concurrent learning as well. Although, I've done my own research and I've seen reports that it's working well in some places.

  • 12:05:04

    NNAMDIJulie, according to FCPS, Fairfax County Public Schools, 18 Fairfax County teachers have said they will not return in person, 62 have requested a leave of absence, but more than 1,000 say they would ask for accommodation so as not to be around groups of people. Is there a concern about not having enough teachers if Fairfax continues to return students to classrooms over the next two months?

  • 12:05:30

    SHEPARDSo as reported at the school board meeting last Thursday, the District is hiring monitors so those teachers can be working from home safely and have a monitor in the classroom. My recollection was they were looking to hire 200 in the first -- with the first wave back and then another 150 monitors. So we'll have to see. I know that they also asked about the sub pool and I'm not sure -- I'm not working for the county so I don't have all that data at the top of my head, but, yes, it's definitely a concern.

  • 12:06:09

    NNAMDIThere's student currently in so-called pilot schools in Fairfax County, Julie. What are those pilot schools and why do they all seem to be title one schools, schools where at least 40 percent of students come from low income families?

  • 12:06:24

    SHEPARDInteresting. I wasn't aware that all of the pilots were from title one schools. I know specifically one of the very early pilots at high school was West Springfield High School. And there was a lot of press around what concurrent learning would look like at the high school and that is not a title one school. That's an interesting question, but you would have to ask the school district that.

  • 12:06:50

    NNAMDIDebbie Truong, what's the latest plan with the District's return to school plan?

  • 12:06:55

    TRUONGSure. So D.C. Public Schools had initially planned to bring thousands of students back for in-person learning on November 9th. Those plans were canceled in large part, because DCPS struggled to staff classrooms with teachers. The Washington Teachers Union filed a complaint with the city Employee Relations Board and that board found that DCPS had failed to collectively bargain with the union about reopening plans and collective bargaining is required by law here in D.C.

  • 12:07:26

    TRUONGSo what you have now is a plan where about 600 elementary school students will return to physical classrooms later this week. DCPS is calling those classrooms care classrooms. Students will continue learning virtually, but they'll be supervised by an adult, who is not a teacher. But again, this return represents a significantly scaled back version of what officials had originally planned for in October.

  • 12:07:53

    NNAMDIHas that been the result of an agreement between DCPS and the Washington Teachers Union or are they still working towards an agreement?

  • 12:08:02

    TRUONGYeah. So the Washington Teachers Union and DCPS have been locked in negotiations about reopening plans for several months. There was a breakthrough late last week in which both sides reached a tentative agreement. Under that agreement which covers things like workplace protections for teachers and safety conditions inside school buildings, teachers would be able to opt out of in-person teaching for the second grading quarter, which we're currently in, but they may be required to teach in-person later in the school year. We should know by Wednesday or so if that proposal will be formally approved.

  • 12:08:43

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 we'd love to hear from. If your children's school opens for in-person learning, would you send them? 800-433-8850. Joining us now is Anya Kamenetz, Education Correspondent at NPR and Author of "The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life." Anya, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:09:07

    ANYA KAMENETZOh, thanks for having me.

  • 12:09:10

    NNAMDIWhat's the schooling situation in other parts of the country? Cases are up in New York where you are. Schools remain open, but is it likely they will close their doors and return to online learning?

  • 12:09:23

    KAMENETZWell, here in New York City the mayor set a very stringent target. He said that if the positivity rate on tests passed three percent that he's going to close the schools. And we looked as though we were heading for that this weekend. And there was actually a wave of protests that came because right now only about less than a third of New York City Public School students are attending in-person. But amongst that community, they're very passionate about keeping the schools open and there's been calls to adopt perhaps a different standard as to whether they can be closed or open.

  • 12:09:58

    NNAMDIAnya, as we noted earlier, D.C. Public Schools halted plans to bring back thousands to school. It will likely eventually happen. So what can we expect when it does? What is school like for kids attending school at New York City Public Schools? What safety measures are taken?

  • 12:10:16

    KAMENETZWell, they're pretty similar at districts around the country. So social distancing is the number one recommendation that changes the way school works, because in order to have social distancing you need smaller class sizes. And that means oftentimes staggered attendance. So here in New York it's two days a week, maybe one day a week except for students with special needs and some pre-K students.

  • 12:10:38

    KAMENETZThen inside the classroom, obviously, masking is a very big mandate, trying to keep groups of students apart so there's no gathering, for example, in the cafeteria. And what some teachers tell me is that it's sort of a throwback, because, you know, you have students kind of sitting at separate desks and they're listening to the teacher. They don't get a chance to interact closely physically in group work. They're not sitting down on the rug for story time. And so a lot of times people feel like it's a little bit of an older way of teaching and learning less dynamic.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDIHere is Manoxy in Fairfax, Virginia. Manoxy, we only have about a minute left in this segment, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:16

    MANOXYHello, Kojo. I just wanted to mention how thankful I am for FCPS teachers. We have great teachers. I have a kid in middle school and high school. And I just wanted to hope that the PTA can also think about something to do with teachers how parents can help them out. I feel like there's too much pressure on them as well. And I really, really appreciate for all the great effort and work that teachers are putting in.

  • 12:11:42

    NNAMDIOkay. We're going to take a short break. But when we come back I'm seeing that the president of the Fairfax County PTA -- or the Fairfax County Special Education PTA is going to be on the phone. So we'll find out exactly what they're thinking about. But we'd like to hear from you too 800-433-8850. Fairfax County schools plan on returning all students to school on January 26, but should they? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:38

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing whether schools in this region should be kept open or reopen and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Fairfax County schools plan on returning all students to school on January 26th, but should they? What do you think? 800-433-8850. Anya Kamenetz, in your recent piece for NPR "Lessons from Europe" where cases are rising, but schools are open, you discuss how many countries in Europe are doing the opposite of what we're doing here in the U.S. What are they doing that we're not?

  • 12:13:15

    KAMENETZSo back in March and April almost every country in the world shut its school doors along with coronavirus lockdowns. What's happening now is most of the continent of Europe has entered a second wave of the virus that's extremely intense. Similar to the U.S. although smaller numbers of cases. They are shutting down pubs. They're shutting down bars, stores. But they're keeping schools open and that's for a couple of reasons. The first one is that across contacts we've observed that schools especially for elementary students are not major super spreader events.

  • 12:13:47

    KAMENETZSo we're not seeing huge clusters or lots of transmission inside the school building. Now important caveat there that are -- were parts of transmission in things like high school athletics and other places that young people gather outside the school doors. So the lack of super spreader events is one thing. The second thing that European officials told me is, you know, they really think that schools are important. That it's a tradeoff that's worth it if it's a tiny bit more cases, but we get all the kids in school that get that socialization. They overcome the isolation and they get the learning. That that's worth it and we should close other things first in priority before we close schools.

  • 12:14:27

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you think about that? Closing other things in priority before schools are closed. Give us a call. Let's go to Michelle in Fairfax County. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:40

    MICHELLE (CALLERHi, Kojo. Thanks so much for taking my call. I'm the President of the Fairfax County Special Education PTA. So I work with Julie. Hi, Julie. And we have many concerns about the return to school plan in terms of students with disabilities. We are all in favor of getting kids back in the classroom, but getting them back in safely. And what happened last week at the school board meeting was really shocking in that there was no special educator voice heard at that meeting.

  • 12:15:13

    MICHELLE (CALLERThere were multiple principals and teachers and nobody representing the special education teachers and students to give feedback on how the pilots and first few cohorts have been going, which have been predominantly special education students. The staff needs are not being heard. There's isn't any centralized way for the staff to report their concerns. And there's just been a lot of trouble with collaboration and consistency across the county.

  • 12:15:41

    NNAMDIOkay. Okay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Let's continue in that vein with Rachel also in Fairfax, Virginia. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:52

    RACHELThank you, Kojo, for answering my call. I am both a parent and I am a PTA president at Rocky Run Middle School. I have several concerns about students returning to school full time. It's scary thinking how quickly that it could spread in our community. It's scary how quickly it can spread to staff, and I will not be sending my student back in. We are 100 percent virtual.

  • 12:16:23

    NNAMDIWell, Stephanie emails, "My child is a special needs student. She started high school in Frederick County, Maryland this fall. She failed every class first quarter. I'm very grateful to say her high school started her in small groups, four students to one staff member with strict social distancing. So far great improvement, hoping this can continue." So they are clearing differing opinions. Here's another one from Anne in McLane, Virginia. Anne, your turn.

  • 12:16:53

    ANNEYes. Hi, Kojo. I just wanted to say briefly that I am for the students going back to school. I don't think the spread is as bad as they say. I think what the biggest problem is teachers are afraid, especially older teachers. And I would really propose to Fairfax County, I, myself, was a professional in economics. I have advanced degrees. I would be willing to teach the school while the teachers sat out for free. If they wanted to do that, I would volunteer to be a teacher until this passed. And I bet there's a lot of other parents at home, retired people that would do the same.

  • 12:17:35

    NNAMDIJulie Shepard, what do you think about that?

  • 12:17:37

    SHEPARDI think that I would love to see the parents, who are -- have education experience who want to help out, apply to be classroom monitors. Like I said earlier in this session, with the PTA we support parent choice. There are students with medical needs that can't go back in the building. And there's ones that aren't feeling comfortable, but there are students who do need to go back in these cohort models. So like you referenced the caller from Frederick, Maryland, there are successful implementation going on.

  • 12:18:12

    NNAMDIAnd would you be willing to go into school as a monitor?

  • 12:18:14

    SHEPARDMe, personally, that is not an area that I am working on. I do other advocacy for military families and I wouldn't have the time to be doing my other work.

  • 12:18:28

    NNAMDIOkay. Onto Debbie. What are the plans of other school districts in the D.C. area like Montgomery County, another large district? What are plans to return to in-person instruction and how are rising coronavirus cases affecting that decision making?

  • 12:18:43

    TRUONGSure. So Maryland school systems, at least in the D.C. region have been a little bit more cautious about reopening compared to, you know, D.C. Public Schools and school systems in Northern Virginia. Montgomery County Public Schools outlined a tentative plan to start bringing small groups of students on January 11th and perhaps larger groups of students in February. They're in the process of surveying parents about, you know, what they want for their children. And, yeah, as you said, COVID-19 cases are surging in the D.C. region. But school system leaders are moving ahead with reopening plans. You know, they believe they can do so safely with mitigation strategies like requiring face masks, social distancing and keeping students in the same groups throughout the day.

  • 12:19:31

    NNAMDIHere's Nadia in Springfield, Virginia. Nadia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:37

    NADIAYes, I was -- I've got two kids. One has, you know, currently has asthma. Just getting the flu will get us into the ER. You know, 50 percent chance that we'll be in the ER. So COVID is very much a concern for us, and we see some schools that are promising that they'll have the social distancing yet you'll see that a lot of the times that it's not going on in schools. So I'm not sure what schools are planning to do to enforce that. I just see that it's going to be something extremely difficult to do.

  • 12:20:22

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Here now is Randall in Upper Marlborough, Maryland. Randall, it's your turn.

  • 12:20:32

    RANDALLYeah. I have a problem with people up here discussing whether or not we should be back in school. I mean, what sense does it make? I mean, people should just ask themselves, what sense does it make for us to have these kids back in school so they can bring their germs back to the house? If they would just get some common sense about this understanding about what's going on in this country and see what New Zealand has done, they're like a regular normal society going on here. And we're sitting here debating on whether kids should be back in school.

  • 12:21:02

    NNAMDIRandall allow me to interrupt for one second, because what Anya Kamenetz said that they found in Europe on the basis of evidence is that schools are not big spreaders. What would you say? Oh, oh. I think we lost Randall. Anya, can you reiterate that for me, please?

  • 12:21:22

    KAMENETZYes. It's been noticed since the very beginning of the pandemic that children are less likely to have serious illness from the disease. And what we've seen from several months of schools being open starting last spring in Asia and over the summer and now in the fall in Europe is that we're not seeing big outbreaks inside schools. So what that means is very specific. That when there's masking, when there's distancing, disinfection, ventilation all of these precautions that there are very very few examples you can point to of actually large numbers of cases passing inside the school. And obviously, you know, we didn't always know this, so we closed schools in the spring because of an analogy with previous kinds of diseases like influenza and measles that children were very likely to catch and spread.

  • 12:22:10

    KAMENETZBut this COVID-19 virus is very different and so that's why countries across Europe and really across most of the developed world where they're able to, they're keeping their schools open.

  • 12:22:20

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Anya Kamenetz, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:25

    KAMENETZSure. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:22:27

    NNAMDIJulie Shepard, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:29

    SHEPARDThank you very much, Kojo. It was a pleasure.

  • 12:22:32

    NNAMDIAnd Debbie Truong, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:35

    TRUONGThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:22:36

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we're talking money sense on Kojo For Kids with The Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist Michelle Singletary. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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