Arlington Public Schools’ decision to “pause” athletic and other extracurricular activities for the first half of January has been met with dissent in the ranks, eye-rolls from other jurisdictions and a full-frontal attack from a parents’ group that contends the action is another hair-trigger, ass-backward response by school officials to the pandemic.
Superintendent Francisco Durán on Dec. 29 dropped the bombshell:
“As a precaution, APS will pause in-person athletics and extracurricular activities, including practices, competitions, performances, clubs, theater, band, orchestra and chorus, and Career and Technical student organizations, effective tomorrow, Dec. 30, through Jan. 14,” he said in a message posted on the school system’s Website.
Durán, whose approach to after-school activities since he became superintendent 18 months ago has struck some as dependent on the ability of various groups of parents to aggressively advocate for their sports and after-school programs, said cutting extracurriculars from the time being would serve as “one measure to keep school open for instruction.”
The decision to stop athletics in the heart of the winter sports season drew dismay from a number of prominent coaches, particularly considering that neighboring Fairfax County had announced plans to move forward with its schedule. None of the coaches, however, would go on the record with their criticism, for fear of professional reprisals.
Not fearful of blowback was the advocacy group Arlington Parents for Education, which has pressed the school system to take a science-based approach to keeping the school system running during the pandemic, and castigating its leadership when that does not happen.
Locking out athletes and those in other extracurriculars is another example of the school system failing to see the big picture, the organization said.
“APS’ ‘abundance of caution’ approach to COVID imposes real costs on our students – costs not being borne by students in neighboring jurisdictions,” the organization said in a statement. “Students should be asked to sacrifice only if justified by scientifically supported evidence that the actions taken will improve safety.”
Community members, too, were left to speculate what criteria were being used to make decisions.
“Fairfax County, Alexandria, Falls Church city can figure it out, but here in Arlington, we just pack it in,” local resident Kristen Short said. “Apparently in Arlington, when the going gets tough, we quit. How pathetic.”
Students who were impacted by the decision wondered why such a broad-brush edict had been handed down:
• “We should still be able to play, because we are fully vaccinated and athletes are tested every day,” said Washington-Liberty High School sophomore Geneva Webber, who plays on the school’s junior-varsity basketball squad. “The system in place is working. If players or a lot of team members test positive, they don’t play. That has already happened to our team.”
• “I can’t understand why they shut us down,” said Chris Short, a Yorktown High School student and member of the varsity boys basketball team. “We played last year with nothing; now this year we have added daily testing and we are vaccinated and have other protocols.”
• “I understand the concern, but I think we can have a season if we do things in a safe way like we have been doing,” said Maren Stroup, a senior at Yorktown High School and captain of the girls gymnastics team. “That seems to have been working.”
Durán said he will provide parents and students an update “on or before Jan. 14.” That’s the same week that a new governor (Republican Glenn Youngkin) and with him, new leadership at the Virginia Department of Education, arrive in Richmond – a prospect that may well be striking terror in the hearts of Democratic-dominated Northern Virginia school boards, which have essentially have been unimpeded by the state government during the eight years of Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam as governor.
Youngkin, however, ran on – and arguably was elected on – bringing those very local school leaders and bureaucrats to heel. Given Virginia’s top-down pyramid of political power known as the Dillon Rule, he may well have the ability to enforce his will on them.
The issue of canceling (“pausing,” in Durán’s phrasing) extracurriculars to start the new year is sure to be a topic, at least among public speakers, at the first School Board meeting of the year, set for Jan. 6.
That meeting will include the arrival of a new board member, as Mary Kadera succeeds Monique O’Grady. O’Grady last year opted against running for a second term.
Kadera’s arrival could, over time, alter the balance of power on the School Board, which for years has seen rival factions jockey for a majority on the five-member body.
As to the broader question posed by the Dec. 29 announcement – will Arlington schools eventually retreat back into a complete “virtual” classroom environment? – that might end up being a question litigated in the courts.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Northam last spring requires all Virginia school systems to maintain in-person instruction (with an online option) for the entirety of the 2021-22 school year. School leaders at the local level have been delegated authority to close individual schools in certain instances and for limited periods, but do not have the power to keep entire school districts shuttered.
With Republicans soon to be in charge of the House of Delegates and possibly having a workable majority on the subject (19 Republicans plus a few Democrats) in the state Senate, additional keep-schools-open edicts could be coming down the sluice in the 2022 session, and are likely to find a receptive audience in Youngkin.