Tysons, VA

On Tuesday morning (Feb. 23), 12 kindergarteners stepped into their classroom at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church for the first time.

Their teacher, Claire Kelley, and Principal Lauren Badini had distributed individually bagged breakfasts on the distanced desks. The classroom looked like the quintessential kindergarten classroom, decorated with bright colors and posters.

However, some of the posters bore messages instructing students to keep their distance from each other, wash their hands, and wear masks, a reminder that this was anything but a typical school day in a typical school year.

“It’s a pandemic classroom,” Badini said. “[Kelley’s] done an amazing job making it fun and exciting.”

Kelley will welcome another 12 kindergarteners to her classroom today (Wednesday).

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’m super hopeful things are getting better.”

Nearly one year since schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairfax County Public Schools is reopening its doors for families who opt for in-person instruction in stages over the next month.

After delaying plans to resume in-person classes in January, the Fairfax County School Board approved a new Return to School timeline earlier this month that started bringing students back on Feb. 16. Its schedule lines up with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandate that all school divisions provide an option for in-person instruction by Mar. 15.

This week, 7,000 kindergarteners across the division returned, along with preschoolers, Early Head Start students, and other students receiving specialized instruction. Kids who are not receiving special education services are following a hybrid model that provides two days of in-person classes per week, with groups coming in on alternating days.

Graham Road will add 60 first and second graders on Mar. 9 and 80 students in grades 3-6 on Mar. 16. The phasing was designed so kindergarteners would have time to adjust to mitigation behaviors before being overwhelmed by older students, according to Badini.

“We’ve been prepping since July,” Badini said. “We’ve had to rethink every aspect of school. Elementary school turns on collaboration, talking, being close, holding hands.”

Kelley started preparing her students over Zoom by having them greet each other with fist bumps and air hugs. They practiced wearing their masks and watched videos of handwashing. The teacher developed songs and verbal cues, like pantomiming a zombie, to make sure kids stay apart.

“These are the rules they have to follow to stay in school,” she said. “I’m taking a step back to make sure they understand what they need to do to stay safe.”

For Badini, Mar. 12, 2020 was the last day things felt normal. When schools closed, the principal sprang into action to make sure her students — most of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches — have internet access, piloting a program with FCPS and internet provider Cox.

Badini says the school tries to “do everything we can” to make up for the sacrifices parents are making, by providing free meals and snacks because “there has had to be a give and take somewhere.”

While Graham Road has some distinct challenges, all school principals are grappling with engagement, connectivity, and attendance, she said.

“We have wanted this and have been waiting for this for a year,” Badini said. “We know parents are frustrated. We’re working parents, too.”

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