Keeping our children safe in schools during the pandemic
By Farrell Kelly
Having been a teacher in the Falls Church City public schools for fourteen years and having lived in the city for five years, I know how much our community values service and collective action. Our nickname, “The Small Town”, underscores the value we place on community and maintaining a small-town feel with global conveniences and outlook.
The principles of the International Baccalaureate that we transmit to the school focus on these ideas. Students learn that they are part of local and global communities larger than themselves. They learn about active community service – how everyone can use their talents to benefit others. A prime example of this is our upcoming ‘Give Day’ celebration, the culmination of weeks of fundraising and charity work, enabling students to provide thousands of meals to people facing food shortages.
The pandemic has highlighted our interconnectedness and by its very nature has proven that none of us are islands. Covid has been hard on our relationships and our livelihoods. It has created unimaginable inconvenience for all, and for some it has caused tragedies. We have lost loved ones or seen others trapped by a chronic illness that is not fully understood.
One of the few bright spots to come from Covid is how it has brought communities together to achieve their best through service to others. Here in Falls Church City, local groups like the Falls Church Education Foundation have worked tirelessly to provide food and supplies to families hardest hit by the economic and social impacts of Covid-19. The Columbia Baptist Church Pantry has served the neediest members of our community through donations from their more secure neighbors. The collective example you set for your children, watching over each other in the face of calamity, is far more important than any individual lesson they may have missed during our months of distance learning.
Last weekend, the governor of Virginia signed into law an executive order on masking that focuses on the wants of individuals rather than the shared needs of the community. It will soon be up to citizens to choose again which collective example to set for each other and for our children. I hope and trust that the people of Falls Church will choose to keep their children masked for now.
As a teacher, your children are my highest priority. Over the past two years, I have worked harder than I ever thought possible to provide valuable experiences for my students in an ever-changing field. My colleagues, both in the classroom and on the buses, in administration, facilities and support services, have also worked prodigiously. We were the first NoVA district to return to school buildings last spring, and the only district to open during snow last week. As members of the Falls Church community, we share your commitment to stepping up in difficult times. I fear I am eroding what has been, besides vaccination, our primary Covid mitigation strategy. I want to be able to stay in school.
These are my concerns and my priorities as a teacher. But, like you, I am not defined solely by my work. As a parent, I have a two year old daughter who is not eligible for vaccination. As a son, I have a mother in her 70s, a lung cancer survivor whom I couldn’t hug for the year before the shots. She must be part of her granddaughter’s life. As a friend, I have seen families in communities with little masking, their schools rendered inoperative in the face of Covid surges. As a colleague, I work with immunocompromised people or live with high-risk relatives.
I know many in Falls Church want life to return to normal. For some, the governor’s executive order allowing families to opt out of public school mask mandates may seem like an opportunity to do so. However, the governor’s order will not allow individuals to return to normal; we are not there yet as a society. Omicron continues to outpace us and local Covid numbers are at their highest level since the start of the pandemic.
Instead, it’s an opportunity to reaffirm our community values – caring for our most needy, who can’t get vaccinated or can’t unmask themselves; ensuring that our schools remain at full operating capacity, with staff and students quarantined where possible; show our children what true triumph in the face of adversity looks like. This is an opportunity to show that we will not individually choose a primrose path that endangers others. Instead, we will strive together until we reach a common resolution.
I hope the Falls Church community will take advantage of the opportunity Governor Youngkin has given us to recommit to the best of our values by caring for one another. I hope our families will keep their children masked.
Farrell Kelly is a teacher at Henderson Middle School and a former winner of the Falls Church Teacher of the Year award.