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Thoughts On the First Day Of School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

"The question really is how to make the best of the bad choices with which COVID has left us"


See below for some thoughts on the first day of school, by Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, Fairfax County School Board members Rachna Sizemore Heizer, Laura Jane Cohen, Melanie Meren and Abrar Omeish; Prince William County School Board Chair Babur Lateef; Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn; Arlington School Board Democratic nominee Cristina Diaz-Torres; etc. Good luck to everyone as school resumes in this weird, COVID-19 pandemic world we’re living in!

Rachna Sizemore Heizer

Hello Fairfax County students, families, and staff,

As we look to start this most unusual school year, I want to share a few thoughts. I know fall and the return to school is not what any of us would want it to be. Every year on the first day of school, I lovingly follow my kids down our street telling them at the top of my lungs how much I love them and will miss them while recording all of it for posterity. While they outwardly groan over my obnoxiousness, each year they still ask me if I am going to record them on their first day of school. This year would have been my last year to do so, with my youngest a rising senior. It is one very small loss in a sea of many larger losses.

But instead, he and I have been busy getting his school space ready at home, printing “Last First Day” posters, and getting ready to approach this year with the same attitude he shows when he is on stage like in the picture below, guitar in hand – joy, reaching for all that is possible, and a quick adjustment to the unexpected. After all, the show much go on.

I recognize that many of you are also mourning these very real losses big and small this year. I’ve heard your concerns about surviving COVID, of losing jobs, how to support your students while also working, of the need for childcare, how well your students will be able to access virtual learning, of the fear of academic loss, and the emotional toll. I know our students are missing their friends, the activities and casual connections, the ability to be a kid without the weight of a global pandemic, and very real isolation or fear they may have staying at home.
Hopefully, you have been able to attend virtual orientations provided by your school and have gotten many answers to your questions. In my recent newsletter here (https://content.govdelivery.com/…/VAEDUFC…/bulletins/29ccc2b), I have tried to provide answers and resources for support as we embark on this new journey together.

Here is what I know. Our teachers, staff, and administrators have been working around the clock to make our virtual start fun, supportive, interactive – in short – the best it can be. They are coming up with creative ways to engage and build community, reaching out to individual families and students, and are ready to meet your student where they are and be flexible this year. We are asking them to focus on your student’s well being even as they prepare to provide them an excellent education. Right now, we need to let our principals and teachers focus on the all virtual start. We are asking them to do something unprecedented, and we want it to be amazing. And I have been advocating for bringing our students slowly back in in September, starting with those students who need it the most. FCPS has already been planning to slowly, safely, and deliberarely phase in cohorts of students. More on that is expected from our Superintendent at our work session on September 15th.

I know many of you have been frustrated by this process and the changes. I understand. It feels like what we know about COVID, the conditions, what it means to be safe, how to reassure our staff we will keep them as safe as possible, how our students adapt or not, and how to prioritize within the constraints of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, changes daily. I wish I could say there won’t be more changes and curve balls as we all try to figure this out, as new information seemingly contradicts what we read just the previous day or week, especially around children and COVID.

The goal is not to wait for a vaccine but to find a way to safely live with this. At the end of the day we need to do what’s best for our kids in as safe a way as we can. We are watching what is happening as childcare, schools, and society opens, especially in our local area. We are learning about the importance of air quality, of safety in “bubbles” and of much more. It’s become clear we need to be careful, measured, and deliberate in bringing in students. It means instead of trying to do too much, we need to focus on doing things well, prioritizing those students who most need in-person learning and building from there. It means making sure those who are at the center of the work of educating our students – our teachers and staff – feel safe and valued so they can do their job to the best of their ability. While I am very worried about our students learning at home, I also don’t believe it does them any good to come back to in-person school just to send them home a scant few weeks later. The goal must be when we open in-person learning, we have the plans, supplies, and metrics to stay open. After all, our students need consistency.

Until then, the question really is how to make the best of the bad choices with which COVID has left us? That is something I’ve been thinking about all summer. How do we find a way to live with COVID, recognizing the many challenges without those challenges paralyzing us from moving forward?

Here is what I know. Assuming this week goes well, my son, the special education student with fairly significant communication challenges, will have accidentally earned nine college credits this summer. As he did last summer, this summer he was supposed to spend 2.5 glorious weeks singing, playing bass and guitar while living at Berklee College of Music, hanging out with students in the dorms, attending classes and jam sessions with aspiring musicians from all over the world.

Instead, Berklee went virtual, converting their summits into 12-week classes. So now, he’s been in master classes with some of the greats, like Victor Wooten. Even more, he’s learned to manage a complex schedule, discussion boards, submitting videos, writing bass and guitar lines, improvising to backing tracks, working with recording equipment, making choices when classes conflict, knowing where and when to log on, and participating appropriately online, and more.

And he learned to do most of that by himself since I have been working 14 hours a day most days.

I never thought that would have been possible.

His growth in independence has mirrored the growth in music.

And at the end, if he successfully finishes this week. He will have earned 9 college credits.

Not bad for an accidental college student.

Not bad for a special ed kid who wasn’t supposed to ever get to college.

If it wasn’t for COVID, he and I wouldn’t know just how much he is capable of.

Is it AS good? I don’t know.

What I know is it was different.

Was it good?


I hope this first day of school and the rest of this school year, you all find something that can help your children grow as much as my son’s accidental college experience has helped him grow. I hope you can find something good, even if it is not *as* good.
I know it feels like we are tapped out, that we just want normal back. I know I do. But the best way to find normal is to figure out how to find happiness in the new normal, rather than reach for the old happiness in the old normal. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know I am going to try to find it.

I wish you and your family a new happiness on the first day of this new normal school.

I know I will still be obnoxiously recording my son as he starts his first day.

And to the Class of 2021 – I see you. I know you haven’t been in your school building since March of your junior year, you are worried about SATs and college applications and post-secondary planning, you are sad and frustrated at starting your senior year this way, worried about missing those opportunities you’ve worked four years for, and missing those “lasts” in your final year.

in FCPS. I see you, I feel you, I (and others) have been advocating for you, our counselors are here for you, and I promise you we will do our best to do right by you in your last year in high school. We want you to find those special moments and memories and we are working to figure out how to make that happen even in this upside-down world. Please know we cherish our Class of 2021.

Happy First Day of School, 2020
– Rachna

Arlington School Board Democratic nominee Cristina Diaz-Torres

Dear APS students,

Welcome back to your first day of school! 🍎

This year is going to be very different, but you already know that. Instead of checking out your new classrooms, you’re getting set up this morning with an iPad or laptop. Instead of seeing your friends on the playground, you’re logging into Canvas and Teams. It’s all a little weird and, trust me, the grown ups feel it too!

So here’s my advice for a successful first day:

1) Take it slow 🐢– This week you will learn about how school will look like this year. It’s a lot! If you feel scared or overwhelmed, consider this your permission to turn off your video and take two deep breaths. It’s okay to be frustrated or confused or scared!

2) Ask for help 🙋🏾– Your teachers want nothing more than to help you get through this. So let them know what you need by raising your hand, asking a question. This is a confusing time for all of us, but we can get through it together!

3) Be kind ❤️ – This is new for all of us! Be gentle with yourself. Its okay if you don’t understand something on the first try. Also, your family members or guardians are stepping up to be teachers like they never have before. They are going to make mistakes and are going to get frustrated. Be gentle with them, too.

I am so sorry that this year is not what you hoped for. But, with some patience and kindness we can make this year amazing!

Have fun and enjoy your first day!



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