Julia Sanchez started taking precautions to minimize her children’s risk of contracting the novel coronavirus that has spread around the world at an alarming pace when her husband got sick three weeks ago.
The Falls Church mother of three had heard enough about COVID-19, the disease transmitted by the virus, on the news to worry when her husband came down with a fever, suggesting that they should visit a doctor.
When his illness later dissipated, she decided that it had likely just been a cold, but ever since, her family has avoided places with crowds. Her children are allowed to go to their neighborhood playground only if there are no other people there, and they have to thoroughly wash their hands afterwards.
Even these steps, however, did little to prepare Sanchez for the shock of Fairfax County Public Schools shutting down as part of the county’s rapidly evolving effort to prevent the coronavirus from spreading throughout the community.
After initially planning to keep school doors open in the hopes of giving teachers a dedicated day to train and prepare for possible distance learning, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand canceled classes on Mar. 13 and announced that schools would be closed through Apr. 10.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the new coronavirus infects people through close physical contact and respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing.
In addition to urging good hygienic habits, like washing hands with soap and covering coughs and sneezes with a sleeve, public health officials recommend that people avoid large gatherings, especially in confined spaces, to mitigate community spread, when a virus disperses among the general populace instead of being linked to a clearly identifiable source.
Brabrand amended his directive on Mar. 15 to close all school buildings until further notice.
The district’s abrupt closure threw Sanchez and hundreds of other parents in Fairfax County into a precarious situation, forcing them to find a new balance between their need to take care of their children and their professional and financial obligations.
“It’s something hard for us,” Sanchez said. “…The kids, they will be home for like a month, so about the learning, I will try to teach them some stuff that they can do at home…For me, it’s hard with my job that I have to stay with them.”
Sanchez plans to take time off from her work as a housekeeper for the next couple of weeks to stay at home while her husband continues to work, but that arrangement will become less tenable as the school closure drags on.
Aware that many students rely on their school not just for education, but also as a source of food and social support, Fairfax County Public Schools administrators and staff have established food distribution sites throughout the county to provide grab-and-go meals to families in need.
The five schools set up as distribution sites on Mar. 13 have expanded over the past week into 38 locations by Mar. 18 with more added every day. A full, updated list of the sites can be found on the FCPS website under the heading “Coronavirus Update – Food Resources for Families.”
Children under 18 can pick up breakfast for free at any site from 8:00 to 10:30 a.m. and lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with additional meals available at no cost upon request, and adults can purchase meals for $2.
While Fairfax County is among the wealthiest counties in the U.S., approximately 28 percent of the more than 188,000 students enrolled in its public school system qualify free or reduced-price meals, which are available to families who earn below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
29.3 percent of FCPS’s student body is considered economically disadvantaged by the Virginia Department of Education, which classifies a student as economically disadvantaged if they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, receive federal assistance, qualify for Medicaid, or are experiencing homelessness.
A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed public facilities and businesses around the U.S. along with schools, only exacerbates existing inequalities.
“Even just on a great day, sometimes, times are tight,” Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences Principal Julie Easa said. “So, now, as they might not be able to have work or go into work, there’s concern about keeping up with the monthly rent, monthly food costs, child care, and so, we want to do whatever we can to support [our families].”
More than 65 percent of Bailey’s Elementary School students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and Easa says many of their parents are hourly workers, meaning they might lack benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave that are especially critical during a pandemic.
According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of U.S. civilian workers, roughly 33.6 million people, have no paid sick leave, with access ranging from 92 percent for workers who earn at least $32.21 an hour to 31 percent for those who earn $10.80 an hour or less.
Only 27 percent of food preparation and service workers get paid sick leave benefits, the same rate as child care workers, even as the coronavirus illustrates how essential those sectors are to maintaining a functional modern society.
Located in the Bailey’s Crossroads area of Falls Church, Bailey’s Elementary School was one of the five schools initially designated as a food distribution site by FCPS, along with Hybla Valley in Alexandria, Hutchison in Herndon, London Towne in Centreville, and Burke Center.
Bailey’s distributed more than 400 lunches on Mar. 13, and the cafeteria staff anticipated giving out roughly 600 meals on Mar. 16, when they provided breakfast and lunch, according to FCPS Food and Nutrition Services employee Megan Mauer.
Cafeteria workers like Thu Thuy Duong, who has worked at Bailey’s for 11 years, arrived at the school early in the morning to prepare meals, assembling bags of banana bread and cinnamon rolls for breakfast and sandwiches, salads, and milk – regular and chocolate – for lunch.
“I think we have a really good team, and the communication’s been really strong, so we’ve been able to adapt to any situation that's really come to the forefront,” Mauer said.
Children who stopped by Bailey’s Elementary School to pick up food this week also got to take home non-perishable snacks, donated books, and supplies, including notebooks, crayons, graph paper, and more fun activities like Play-Doh or dice to play the game Yahtzee.
Many Fairfax County schools had to scrap plans to distribute supplies or let students check out library books at the last minute when the district decided to close school buildings starting Mar. 16, but faculty at Bailey’s were keenly aware that many of their students have limited materials for studying at home.
In an effort to fill that gap, Bailey’s reading teacher Kerry Ames set up a table to hand out books that the school normally gives away at the literacy nights that it hosts for families.
The school also has two free libraries, essentially boxes that passersby can put books in or take books out, that staff hope to keep stocked as long as possible so that students can get new books to read while away from school.
Ames says Bailey’s is accepting donations, particularly books for teenagers or even adults since its supply is currently heavy on ones for young children. The school is also open to donations of used and new games.
“It’s been stressful,” Ames admitted when asked about the FCPS closure. “…We’re happy that they’re taking the precautions that they’re taking, but we just live in a unique community, and we want to make sure that our kids don't feel isolated.”
While the emergency meals offered by FCPS and many community nonprofits throughout the county may not seem like much, Hector Izar says they definitely help as his family adjusts to their new reality, especially with panicked shoppers depleting food supplies at many grocery stores.
A junior at Justice High School, Izar picked up lunch Bailey’s Elementary School on Mar. 16 with his 7-year-old brother David.
Izar says his classmates have been split between worrying about COVID-19 and joking about it. He has leaned toward taking the threat seriously, grappling with concern about how the disease might affect his father or brother if they contract it.
Now, he also faces the pressure of staying on top of his education while at home, where he does not have anyone who can help teach him.
FCPS has been providing some learning activities online and through videos on Fairfax County’s cable channels, but since not all students have internet access, none of the schoolwork is required or graded for the time being.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said on Mar. 18 that the state education department has urged the federal government to waive standardized testing requirements so that the school closure does not affect seniors’ ability to graduate or schools’ accreditation.
“I was supposed to get an SOL,” Izar said, referring to the Standards of Learning tests required for students in Virginia. “…Now, that’s on hold, but I’m guessing they’ll just reschedule it until we come back, but who knows? If this virus is getting worse, things could change.”