Richmond public schools close for two weeks starting Monday, but some northern Virginia school systems remain open as others shut down.
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s largest school system defended its decision to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic only to capitulate hours later in the face of angry parents, exemplifying the difficult decision schools faced throughout the state.
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand appeared at a news conference Thursday afternoon and defended the decision to stay open, even though neighboring Loudoun County and the entire state of Maryland, just across the Potomac River, announced plans for an extended closure.
By 8 p.m. Thursday, the superintendent emailed a note to all parents with a quote from the county’s health director supporting his decision to stay open. She noted that all of the cases in Virginia, so far, could be traced to international travel or direct exposure to someone with the virus. Maryland, on the other hand, had seen its first case of “community spread” in which a person had contracted the illness without such a direct connection.
“Schools serve an important and vital function in our community. Keeping schools open, whenever possible, is critical at this time,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu. “If, and when, it is determined that our contact investigations show any connection to the school system, we would provide closure guidance and recommendations.
Brabrand did, though, announce cessation of all after-school activities, sports, and community use of the schools through April 12.
But that wasn’t enough to appease worried parents. By midnight, Brabrand reversed course and closed schools Friday.
“During the past several hours we continue to hear genuine concerns from parents about keeping our schools open while the coronavirus response escalates around the country,” he wrote. “As a result, and in an abundance of caution, I believe it is prudent for FCPS to cancel school tomorrow to help ease parent, staff, and student anxiety.”
At one of the last events in the school system before the closures went into effect, bands at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church performed a concert in front of a sparsely attended crowd of parents and family members, easily less than half the attendance for a normal concert. Parents remarked that the situation reminded them of the 2002 sniper spree in the nation’s capital area, when people refused to go out in public as a series of random sniper shootings claimed the lives of 10 people over a three-week span.
“Stay healthy. Stay safe,” band director Paul Vesilind told attendees as the concert concluded.
The coronavirus has infected around 128,000 people worldwide and killed over 4,700. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who contract it recover within weeks.
The decisions faced by Fairfax County and other schools came as Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday as Virginia’s number of people testing positive for COVID-19 grew from 9 to 17. He advised all Virginians to avoid large gatherings “for the time being.”
“The situation is fluid, and it is changing rapidly,” Northam said at a press conference with other state officials and top lawmakers.
While Fairfax County schools closed, neighboring schools in Alexandria and Arlington County remained open. In other parts of the state, schools in Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties said they would close either on Friday or beginning on Monday.
A growing number of universities have suspended on-campus instruction, extended spring break, or both. Those include the University of Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Longwood University, where a student tested positive for COVID-19.
Arlington National Cemetery closed to most visitors on Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but said funerals will continue as scheduled.
The cemetery announced the move in a series of tweets, citing Defense Department directives and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. It said families arriving for funerals will be asked to remain in their cars while queuing up, and that the rest of the cemetery will be open only to family pass holders.
Northam said he was canceling all state conferences and large events for the next 30 days and urged local governments and private organizers to follow suit. He also announced new restrictions on travel for state workers.
Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, said there is so far no sign of “community spread” of the virus in Virginia.
— Matthew Barakat, AP