Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It’s elementary school dismissal time, Covid era, parochial edition.

On a Tuesday afternoon in the parking lot/playground behind the St. Thomas More Cathedral School off Glebe Road at Arlington Boulevard, I’m observing a choreographed end-of-school day drill.

Staff at the Catholic school (pre-K-8), one of 41 in the 70-parish regional Arlington Diocese, are practicing protocols that have allowed in-person instruction since the start of this school year while Arlington Public Schools have (until the partial reopening last week) stayed virtual.

Beginning at 2:55, Principal Cathy Davis speaks through outdoor P.A. speakers to nudge the 400 students to stop all activity and “call to mind the blessings of God.” She recites an “Act of Contrition Prayer.” Outside, staffers masked with the school’s customized two-ply blue gaiters move orange cones and traffic signs. Kids in uniforms and patrol belts take down the American flag.

Dozens of parents in minivans are lined up according to assigned groups (blue-orange or purple cards on dashboards), spaced at 10-minute intervals. Some venture out of cars as staffers escort children with their backpacks and carryalls. “Six feet, my friend,” the principal reminded them. Students who walk, some escorted to Glebe Rd., for safety reasons exit last.

The advantages parochial schools enjoy include the “amazing supportive parent population,” Davis said. “We don’t depend on buses or small conference rooms.” They embrace anti-Covid mitigation, which includes multiple sanitizer wipe-downs of classroom surfaces.

“You can’t see the smiles on faces because students are masked, but you can see the twinkle in their eyes,” she said. “The learning going on is astronomical, and safety is the part we’ve been able to capitalize on.” There’s a huge waiting list to transfer in.

At St. Agnes School (460 students pre-K-8), the wait list has ballooned to 380, with parents “seeing the writing on the wall” that public school would be shuttered, said Principal Jen Kuzdzal.

“Our advantage is that we have autonomy and are smaller and don’t rely on buses.” The pandemic “is a watershed moment for Catholic education. It’s all about the hustle, being scrappy,” she added. “We don’t have revenue sharing, just what the Parish can give us. We knew we had to open. Virtual wasn’t a choice.”

The high school level differs, noted Bill Crittenberger, now in his second year as head of school at Bishop O’Connell (1,170 students grades 9-12). The normal movement through hallways between classes for seven periods isn’t safe during Covid. So O’Connell divided the students into blue and silver cohorts of 500 each, alternating days on campus with students at home for virtual “synchronous” lessons and working at their own pace.

“Families have a chance to go virtual if they choose, but many are excited about the hybrid,” he said, noting that applications are up. Sports teams “are carefully scheduled to limit and document their interactions, in case this becomes necessary. Covid protocols continue to be enforced on the sidelines and spectators are limited. Cautiously, we are thinking through the rollout of other in-person activities such as clubs and activities, retreats, and fine arts performances.”

O’Connell has tested and documented narrow outbreaks, (particularly after holidays with family) requiring brief lockdowns “out of an abundance of caution,” Crittenberger said.

No one — not students, parents or staff, public or private, liberal or conservative — prefers learning while locked down during a pandemic. But area Catholics are using the crisis forced on us all to innovate boldly. They feel blessed.

Spring is expected to burst out soon enough for planners of a dazzling outsize flower display coming to Culpepper Garden, the senior housing community off Route 50 near George Mason Drive

Bulbs destined to produce an explosion of 28,000 daffodils were planted to bloom in time for the nonprofit’s March and April garden walks.

The public is invited for self-guided, socially distant tours by appointment on select dates. The retirement home’s residents and staff can enjoy the extravaganza in yellow fully vaccinated.