The new school set to replace the old George Mason High School in the City of Falls Church will be opened in the coming weeks, but in-person learning may not be allowed despite a recently announced reopening plan.
Falls Church City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan gave the News-Press a tour of the nearly completed facility Tuesday, showing off the bright, open feel that highlights just how compact and, in some spots, dingy the old Mason building was.
“Opening a new school is challenging enough in and of itself,” Noonan said. “But doing it against the backdrop of a pandemic has made it all the more challenging.”
The new front entrance will feature a legacy wall and kiosk on one side and a professionally done graphic detailing the school system’s history with the International Baccalaureate program on the other. Just past the opening foyer is the new theater that boasts a stage that can hold 140 and an audience of up to 600 as well as the rear projection lighting system that has been used in Broadway productions such as Hamilton.
Noonan hinted that the high school’s first performance would be about the mishaps and hijinx that we’ve all dealt with while trying to communicate virtually for the past 10 months.
The new gym was completed during the time of the News-Press’ tour, with Noonan saying it could host up to 1,500 people. Just beyond a large, glass section of the gym’s back wall is a patio area with a view of the football field. Noonan’s hope is that the gym could one day serve as a graduation location so that families have the option of a more intimate ceremony.
Core curriculum classes take place between the third and fifth floors, with breakout areas equipped with couches, chairs and long tables filling the space between classes. For instance, the third floor has an atrium serving as a gathering area with plenty of seating. Noonan suggested, Language & Literature teacher Brian Walsh, whose classroom is situated on the perimeter of the atrium, may want to use that area as a space for his class to reenact scenes from the books they’re reading.
Down on the ground level, the black box for the theater students even comes equipped with a mock catwalk so production hands can get used to controlling the lighting for their performances. A soon-to-be finished wrestling room and a spacious weight room are overshadowed by the sheer coolness of the new tunnel walkouts to the football field that are close by.
Noonan said the new school can hold anywhere from 1,300 – 1,500 students, which is significant room to grow from its current enrollment of around 900. With a surplus of “unprogrammed rooms,” to use the superintendent’s lingo, that aren’t designated for one teacher or course, the space is there. Noonan also said that teachers could share classrooms during their off-periods if enrollment hits a certain point.
In the here and now, Falls Church schools don’t have to worry about enrollment challenges since roughly 60 students have opted for homeschool due to FCCPS’ lack of reopening. Noonan said he expects a few more may follow, but believes the school system will bounce back once the pandemic passes.
That goal appears further away than some may have anticipated.
Noonan announced a new reopening plan on Dec. 29, with the first cohort of special populations and English as a second language learners returning on Tuesday of this week, the second cohort of elementary age kids (K – 5) coming back on Jan. 12 and the third cohort group of middle and high schoolers (6 – 11) coming back on Jan. 21. Seniors at the new high school would be allowed to come back a week earlier than their cohort on Jan. 12.
But that was all dependent on the virus data being favorable. With 10 percent of the City’s Covid-19 tests coming back positive, over 200 new cases per 100,000 people and a high burden of regional and local transmission, Noonan plans on sending another notice out to temper reopening expectations.
“Looking at the data today, it’s hard to believe that we’ll be able to open next week,” Noonan said Tuesday. “We really thought that given the extra time after winter break…we assumed that people wouldn’t travel. And we assumed that the rates in the City of Falls Church would drop because people would hunker down. But unfortunately, what we’re seeing is the data is actually getting worse in the City of Falls Church than it was before the break.”
Teachers are scared and nervous about coming back even with virus mitigation measures in place, according to Noonan. However, national leaders that the school system has been seeking guidance from, such as infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said that “If you look at the data, the spread among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected.”
Dr. Kevin Pham, a visiting health policy analyst at conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, said that one of the happy surprises of the pandemic has been that schools, and more specifically young children, haven’t proven to be major vectors for the disease.
He clarified that the community spread data Falls Church schools uses tends to be associated with how virus transmission takes place in schools.
But Pham added that the spread of coronavirus has been contrary to how we normally think of schools’ roles as hotspots, especially as it relates to seasonal influenza outbreaks.
Noonan himself noted that, from the data he’s looked at, kids who are 12 and under rarely transmit the virus or contract it very severely. It’s why the reopening plan is broken down into cohorts so the school can pick and choose which groups of students are safe enough to return to in-person learning.
While he doesn’t believe there should be a full school reopening the way there was prior to the pandemic, Pham does point out that not having children in schools is affecting their educational achievements.
A December report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company said that students are estimated to lose an average of five to nine months of learning once the academic year concludes in June. Maybe worst of all, Pham thinks the virus has caused school systems to reverse their priorities.
“Normally, it’s going to be the adults who bear the burden of keeping society safe,” Pham said. “But with the case of school closures, we’re sort of saddling our children with the responsibility for keeping us, the adults, safe. And that’s really unjust.”