Loathe as I am to wade into a subject this topical, the spatial ramifications of it are just as interesting than the content itself—probably more. So, here goes nothing:
That small, seemingly innocuous orange and purple sign makes an urgent plea, the context of which should be obvious: the public schools in question are closed due to wintertime COVID-19 surges, and the proponents of this message believe children should be physically present in the classroom, rather than engaged in more virtual learning. The sign references Arlington Public Schools, the district for the small, densely populated, highly affluent county in northern Virginia, directly across the river from Washington DC.
It’s a deeply controversial four-word sentence, in the era of COVID. Schools across the nation have shifted their pedagogical approach in response to the pandemic, like a three-way toggle switch: fully open but with masks and sanitizing safeguards; half operational snd socially distanced, with students alternating days; or 100% virtual. Many school districts that had relaxed their restrictions through the fall decided to ramp them up again by November, thanks in no small part to the surging case load. As a general rule, public schools have taken a more measured approach, guardedly responding as school boards typically have aligned with the judgments of municipal authorities or state/county health departments. Private schools, by contrast, have overwhelmingly favored remaining open as much as possible. A Poynter Institute article convincingly asserts the rationale for this is money: public schools already tend to have larger class sizes, and they are less likely to have the resources necessary for daily sanitization or effective social distances. True though this may be at a generalized level, money is also a serious factor at the private schools: they must align with the will of the parents who pay the tuition, and if they fail to show this commitment they face a genuine risk of closure if they lose enrollment—of total insolvency, a situation Arlington Public Schools or other public educational institution do not face. On rare occasions public school districts may dissolve and merge with a neighbor, but they do not go out of business.
Bearing in mind the more byzantine political process that governs Arlington Public Schools and others, it is unsurprising that they would err on the side of caution. But it is difficult for those with children enrolled in the public system to watch the nearby private schools adhere to the more conventional pedagogical approach, which nearly all parents would favor over virtual learning under normal circumstances. Thus we witness activism for the re-opening of the public schools in Arlington County.
But no less interesting than the message conveyed on this sign is the decision on where to stick it in the ground. Sure, its on a median, but exactly what type?
It’s the median of US 1, Richmond Highway, right as it passes through the busy Crystal City area, just a stone’s throw from Reagan International Airport (DCA). This is an extremely busy stretch of highway, filled both with regular commuters who pass through on their way to Washington DC (or work among many of the businesses in the area), or visitors staying at the numerous hotels that exploit the proximity to DCA. And though the frequent stoplights both slow traffic and encourage frequent pedestrian crossings, this is otherwise not an easy median to access. Jaywalking would normally prove dangerous. Yet the person foisting this “Open Public Schools Now!” onto the populace chose a mid-block location, requiring either some dangerous jaywalking or an approach from the crosswalk, then traipsing through the median at least one hundred feet. It was a deliberate effort. And they did it again elsewhere on the block:
It’s very difficult to see in the photo above, but at the base of the third stoplight pole from the foreground, just beyond the primary intersection, is another activist sign—one that isn’t even approaching by any crosswalks. Installing that sign would prove even more of a risk.
Why would he or she do this? Sure, a median is a highly visible place for vehicles coming from either direction, but wouldn’t a conspicuous location right at the stoplight, where vehicles must idle, be a smarter decision? Or could it simply be that, in a dangerous place, the signs are more difficult to steal?
Here’s a slightly different public school advocacy message, again in a median in Crystal City.
It’s not quite as inaccessible as the earlier signs, but it’s very visible and clearly positioned to make it undesirable to reach—to remove. Arlington Parents for Education may not seem controversial to everyone at first blush, but in these hyper-partisan times, it’s commonplace for people to remove signs of a political candidate or an advocacy position with which they disagree, and the notion of whether its sufficiently safe to re-open Arlington Public Schools fuels strong emotions, with the exact tone and tenor of the debate shifting amidst persistent uncertainty as to whether or not COVID is in retreat.
Truth be told, it reminds me of where, just a few months ago, I spotted a political sign for one of the most polarizing and controversial political figures in American history, in neighboring Alexandria, a city which (like most of Northern Virginia) the prevailing sentiment is opposed to the politician. Here’s a Street View of where I saw the sign, just a bit further south on Richmond Highway. And here’s where I saw another one in Alexandria, on Telegraph Road. Both of these situations are even worse in terms of traffic and lack of pedestrian safety, yet someone prevailed enough to ram a sign into the ground.
Try as they might to plant a theft-proof sign, it didn’t work. In both cases, they were gone within twenty-four hours. Did the city/county remove them? Not likely—in the weeks preceding an election, it’s typical to retain signs on public land, and the ROW of a major highway is great for its visibility. I guess this just proves the commitment of the sign thief. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer these signs (which I spotted just four days ago) stay up. It might depend on the caseload.