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Northam: Vaccine Event for ACPS Brings ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’

In contrast to the mainly virtual events of 2020, an in-person vaccination held at T.C. Williams High School today had an air of cautious optimism as Alexandria City Public Schools staff received the first round of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Governor Ralph Northam and Mayor Justin Wilson were in attendance, along with several others in the City Council and local leadership.

Northam said combatting coronavirus has been a team effort on both a state and local level.

“The hope we’re seeing — the light at the end of the tunnel — is the vaccine,” Northam said. “We need more shots in people’s arms… We’re hoping to have a majority of Virginians vaccinated by mid-summer.”

Wilson said that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

“We’re almost there, ” Wilson said. “The governor and I are runners and we know at about mile 21 or 22 things start to fall apart… but we’re almost to the finish line.”

The event was sponsored by ACPS and featured a bevy of local leaders and media — many looking a little scruffier than they did in January 2020 with the year of insanity manifesting in eclectic fashion choices and longer hair. Visiting dignitaries were seemingly an afterthought for the mix as Alexandrians relished a chance to swap in-person gossip.

The main event was the start of system-wide vaccination with Danielle Thorne — a geometry teacher at T.C. Williams High School — and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings.

“It’s the best shot I’ve ever had,” Thorne said. “I’m excited, there’s a real sense of relief.”

The shots were administered by Leanne Desmond, the school nurse at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. Desmond said she’s administered a few shots already, but was excited that many of her colleagues at MacArthur had signed up to get their vaccine today.

“A lot of people from our school are coming today,” said Desmond. “It’s exciting that staff I work with are starting to get it.”

Hutchings, fresh from his vaccination and sporting a sticker for his trouble, spoke to local media about the revised plans for school reopening.

“All students in school by Feb. 16 is the goal,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings also noted that staff will not be required to be vaccinated. The schools will be taking additional health and safety precautions, like protective equipment for staff in schools and desks spaced six feet apart. A report in the fall showed that around half of the school staff were uncomfortable returning to work. Hutchings said ACPS will launch another survey as staff are vaccinated to gauge feelings on returning now. Hutchings said he believed it was likely more would feel confident returning to work once vaccinated.

One of those feeling confident and ready to return was T.C. Principal Peter Balas.

“We miss[ the students] and wish they were back,” Balas said. “One thing we realized as educators is that we get a lot of our energy from the kids. But when they do come back, they have to be safe.”

The schools will have markers in the hall indicating how students should be spaced. While this would normally be impossible in the overcrowded schools, Balas said it’s likely that the schools will have reduced in-person numbers to make class sizes more manageable.

“Everything is going to be different, Balas said. “They will not be in school with all their friends. That natural, free social time will be different. [There will be] long term, lasting effects. Even if everything went back, we will still be seeing lasting effects like considering how many kids we have in a class or what to do with crowds. We’ll have to be prepared for everything and anything.”

As ACPS prepares to continue with vaccination for the rest of their staff, city leadership is thinking ahead to equitable distribution across the city when vaccination moves into phase 1C.

City Council member Canek Aguirre volunteers with the Alexandria Medical Reserve Corps and is pleased with how organized vaccine events have operated on a smaller scale, but said that the city will have to make sure that as vaccinations must be handled equitably as they are distributed on a larger scale. Racial and income inequalities, for instance, have been highlighted with COVID-19 hotspots in the city’s Hispanic community in Arlandria.

“As a health department, we have to be proactive in healthcare equity,” said Aguirre. “We’re going to be talking about that at tonight’s City Council meeting.”

City Council member Amy jackson said that the city has reached a turning point.

“We will look back on this health crisis, economic crisis, in our city and know that we will be stronger because of how we reacted to this challenge,” Jackson said. “I am hoping that this is now the point at which now a solid strategic plan will be realized for the reopening of the city’s public schools.”

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