If Arlington Public Schools students return full-time to the classroom in the fall – and it remains an “if,” not a “when” – should they be masked up throughout the school day?
Good luck getting a solid answer to that question, as the entire situation remains in flux – as it could remain for a while.
“It’s not an easy decision,” Arlington public-health director Dr. Reuben Varghese told County Board members on July 20 as part of a rundown on the current state of COVID in Arlington.
While suggesting the county school system and others should “consider universal masking,” Varghese acknowledged an in-school mask mandate could be easier said than done.
“I would love to see universal masking occur, but it’s not the easiest thing to achieve. Masking, while effective, is difficult to manage for children. Is that something that’s practicable?” he said.
Varghese delivered his remarks a day before the Northam administration promulgated a series of recommendations, which were notable for their lack of definitiveness but certainly seemed to hint that a universal-mask policy in schools would be their preferred choice.
The state government now “strongly recommends” that masks be worn by all those in elementary schools, at least until children 12 and under are eligible to receive the vaccine. It also suggests, at the least, that non-fully-vaccinated students and staff at middle and high schools be either requested or required to wear masks indoors.
The ink on that press release wasn’t yet dry before Republicans went on the offensive. House of Delegates Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said the recommendation “is inconsistent with science, passes the buck to local school divisions, will spark mass confusion and will make it more difficult as our students return to the classroom this fall.”
“There’s nothing to indicate that requiring an 8-year-old to wear a mask while taking a math test will substantially reduce the transmission of COVID or any new variant that is emerging,” Gilbert said.
Unless more specific guidance is handed down from Richmond, Virginia’s 130-plus school districts will be tasked with creating their own policies – while at the same time trying to wrangle back into classroom students who departed the public schools last year.
That is a particularly acute issue inNorthern Virginia, where “virtual” learning lingered longer than the rest of the commonwealth and most of the nation. Parents with means were able to move their children out of public schools into in-person private or parochial settings, and some children of those without resources simply disappeared off the radar screen entirely.
Local school systems also are likely to face an ongoing teacher-recruitment problem, given high numbers of retirements and a limited pool of those willing to hop into an uncertain workplace situation that could change on a whim.
As for the question of returning to a duck-and-cover “virtual” or “hybrid” online model for students this fall? Varghese is not a fan.
“They need to be in school,” he said of students.