Guest Commentary

Keeping Our Children Safe In Schools During the Pandemic

By Farrell Kelly

Having served as a teacher in the Falls Church City Public Schools for fourteen years, and having lived in the city for five, I know how much our community values service and collective action. Our nickname, “The Little City,” highlights the value we place on community and on maintaining a small town feel with global amenities and perspective.

The International Baccalaureate principles we impart in school focus on these ideas. Students learn they are part of local and global communities, bigger than themselves. They learn about active community service – how each can use their talents to do good for others. A prime example of this is our upcoming “Give Day” celebration, the culmination of weeks of fundraising and charitable work, allowing students to provide thousands of meals to people facing food scarcity.

The pandemic has highlighted our interdependence and, by its nature, proven that none of us is an island. Covid has been hard on our relationships and livelihoods. It has created unimagined inconveniences for all, and for some it has caused tragedy. We have lost people we love, or seen others trapped by chronic illness that isn’t fully understood.

One of the few bright spots to come from Covid is the way it has brought communities together to realize the best of themselves 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 hit hardest by the economic and social impacts of Covid-19. The food pantry at Columbia Baptist Church has served our neediest community members with donations from their more secure neighbors. The collective example you have set for your children, looking out for each other in the face of calamity, is far more important than any individual lesson they might have missed during our months in distance learning.

Last weekend, Virginia’s Governor promulgated an executive order on masking that focuses on the desires of individuals instead of the shared needs of the community. It will soon be up to individual citizens to choose once again what 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 kids masked for now.

As a teacher, your kids are my highest priority. I have worked harder during the past two years than I had thought possible to provide valuable experiences for my students in constantly shifting terrain. My colleagues, both in the classroom and on buses, in administration, facilities, and support services, have likewise worked prodigiously. We were the first district in NoVA to return to school buildings last spring, and the only district to open during the snow last week. As members of the Falls Church community, we share your commitment to pitching in during difficult times. I worry about eroding what has been, besides vaccination, our primary Covid mitigation strategy. I want to be able to stay in school.

Those are my concerns and priorities as a teacher. But, like you, I am not defined solely by my job. As a parent, I have a two-year-old daughter who is ineligible for vaccination. As a son, I have a septuagenarian mother, a lung cancer survivor whom I couldn’t hug for the year before vaccines. She needs to be part of her granddaughter’s life. As a friend, I have seen families in communities with little masking, their schools rendered unoperational in the face of Covid surges. As a colleague, I work with people who are immuno-compromised, or live with loved ones who are at high risk.

I know that many in Falls Church want life to get back 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 just that. However, the Governor’s order won’t let individuals get back to normal; we’re just not there yet as a society. Omicron continues to crest over us and local Covid numbers are at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

Instead, this is an opportunity to reaffirm our community values – to look after our neediest, who can’t get vaccinated or can’t unmask; to ensure our schools stay at full operating capacity, with staff and students quarantining to the least extent possible; to demonstrate to our children what real triumph in the face of adversity looks like. This is an opportunity to show that we won’t individually choose a primrose path that endangers others. Instead we’ll strive together until we reach a common resolution.

I hope the Falls Church community will take advantage of the opportunity Governor Youngkin has afforded us to recommit to the best of our values by looking out for each other. I trust our families will keep their kids masked.

Farrell Kelly is a teacher at Henderson Middle School and former winner of Falls Church Teacher of the Year.