Arlington Public Schools will bring all students who choose it back for five days of in-person learning every week starting in the fall, Superintendent Francisco Durán told the school board Thursday.

He emphasized that any families in the Northern Virginia district of 23,000 who want to stay virtual-only will be able to do so, and noted that staffers have already begun to plot out what the remote option will look like. Durán said his inbox and phone have been flooded with anxious messages from parents who prefer virtual, and he sought to reassure them: We will “continue to support those families,” he said.

But for those parents eager to see kids back in classrooms, Durán said, the fall should be a season of joy and triumph.

“I am committed to, hopefully, be in the fall as close to normal as we can be,” Durán said. “I will do everything we can to make sure we do that.”

Still, the meeting was not totally optimistic. Durán also reviewed troubling grade data for the second quarter of the 2020-2021 school year that showed students are continuing to fail their classes at higher rates than in years past. He said Arlington is “developing a plan for summer school” to help combat this trend, and said he would share more details soon.

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The superintendent’s Thursday vow to reopen fully next fall follows similar promises made elsewhere in the Washington region this week. On Tuesday, officials with nearby Loudoun County Public Schools said they would offer five days of in-person learning next fall; and on Thursday, leaders for Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest district, said the same.
Arlington, like most of its neighboring systems, has been largely shuttered for almost a year. It is in the process of returning students to classrooms for a hybrid model of learning that grants children several days a week of face-to-face instruction; by the end of next week, all students who chose it will have begun learning under that model.

Durán said Thursday that the transition is going well — so well that it seems to be causing something of a bottleneck. Earlier in the year, when the superintendent asked Arlington parents to choose between hybrid and virtual instruction, roughly 65 percent selected hybrid and 35 percent opted to keep their children home full-time, he said.

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But now, Durán said, some families who previously indicated a preference for online-only learning are trying to switch to hybrid schooling, apparently impressed by Arlington’s rollout of the model. Some schools have waitlists filled with these families, Durán said, and Arlington officials are working to accommodate requests as quickly as they can while complying with federal and Virginia public health guidelines.
He sought to quiet concerns that virtual-only students could be left behind as their in-person peers head back inside classrooms.

“We remain equally focused on all of our students,” he said, “regardless of what model they have chosen.”

And there is an urgent need to reach all students, Durán said, because the percentage of E’s earned by students at every grade level are up compared to this time last year. The percentage of E’s earned by middle-schoolers increased by 2 percent, Durán said, while the percentage of E’s earned by high-schoolers rose by 3 percent.

Continuing a pattern that has held steady throughout the pandemic, the spikes were steepest for the most vulnerable children: students with disabilities and those whose first language is not English. E’s earned by students in the latter category, known as English learners, jumped by 10 percent, Durán said.
“And we do have a very large number of English learners who have chosen to remain virtual, so we do have to think about that,” the superintendent said. “We recognize there are a lot of limitations to what support we can offer in virtual . . . we are working on that.”

In the meantime, Durán said, the school system is continuing targeted intervention efforts for failing students that officials launched earlier this academic year. That includes holding special office hours, asking counselors to reach out to struggling students, extending deadlines and fitting periods of “academic support” into the school day.

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Durán said Arlington is offering a broad “credit recovery” program, which gives students who failed their classes a chance to make up missed work. Teachers then grade the assignments and recalculate the kids’ marks — which means “those students can pass the class,” he said.

There was at least one bright spot. Durán noted that the percentage of A’s appears to have increased as well this year, as compared to last — rising 6 percent overall at the high school level.

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