Students return to in-person classes, but ‘normal’ is still far off

Students have returned to T.C. Williams High School, but the empty halls and spaced-out classrooms are a grim reminder that the “return to normal” is still a goal on the horizon.

T.C. Williams, a school which typically packs in 3,200 students, now sits just under 500 students. Principal Peter Balas said 475 students came to school this week.

Today (Tuesday, March 16) marked the return for general education students whose families opted to return, joining English as a Second Language (ESL) and special needs students who had been in the school for the last two weeks.

Those entering the schools have their temperatures checked at the door, with any students or staff with higher-than-normal temperatures led to a secure health annex. At other schools ACPS has already had to deal with contact tracing and limiting potential spread.

“We’ve had a couple of students and teachers test positive over the last couple weeks,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said.

Some students are in classrooms where they are spaced out and sit behind plastic shields, learning from teachers who are at the same time live-streaming to students tuning in on ACPS-issued laptops at home. Others sit in the vast cafeteria. Traditionally packed with kids, it now serves as an “internet cafe” where in-person learners take classes with virtual teachers.

Despite the noticeable changes, administrators said spirits are high as staff and students return to the buildings.

“We’re excited to be back,” said School Board Chair Meagan Alderton.

Hutchings said the school district is working on examining how the first week of in-person classes goes and building future plans for the schools based on that. ACPS is currently drafting plans for summer schooling and the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Currently unknown is how many of the school’s teachers are vaccinated. Hutchings said a survey will be put out on March 22 with a poll asking teachers whether they’ve been vaccinated, whether they’ve been trying to and haven’t, or whether they have no intention to get vaccinated.

Currently, ACPS says vaccines are optional for returning staff.

Some teachers have reported difficulty getting access to the vaccine, with the city’s supply trickling in as the waitlist grows. Hutchings said the city has been working with the Department of Health to have teachers prioritized early on for vaccination.

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