NOVA Juvenile Detention Center adapts to COVID-19

NOVA Juvenile Detention Center adapts to COVID-19
The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, based near Landmark Mall in Alexandria's West End, serves Alexandria, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Any congregant living facility has heightened potential for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers nationwide – where inmates live, work, eat, study and recreate within communal spaces – are particularly susceptible to the COVID-19 of spread once it’s introduced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some facilities have become epicenters for outbreaks, as COVID-19 has spread among inmates. Other facilities have released inmates with risk factors or placed them on home confinement. 

Like the rest of these communal living facilities, the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria has had to adapt to the novel coronavirus. However, with only 16 juveniles currently incarcerated at the facility and no reported cases of COVID-19, leadership has strived to maintain normalcy as much as possible.

“We’ve worked very hard to not change what the day looks like for our residents,” Executive Director Johnitha McNair said. “… The one thing that keeps us safe under normal conditions is a scheduled, daily routine, consistency for adolescents.”

The detention center, which opened at 200 S. Whiting St. in 1961, serves the City of Alexandria, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church and houses adolescents from 10 to 17 years old who have, typically, been placed there by the courts due to committing multiple misdemeanors or felony offenses.

One of the major changes the facility has made as a result of the pandemic is schooling. In partnership with Alexandria City Public Schools, the juveniles at the center normally attend classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week in the center’s four classrooms. Since the school division cancelled in-person classes on March 13, the detention center’s educational programming has shifted to match ACPS’ remote learning regimen.

“The staff at the NVJDC are still operating a Continuity of Learning Plan in line with the 2.0 Continuity of Learning Plan rolled out on April 10,” Helen Lloyd, ACPS’ director of communications, said in an emailed statement.

“We’re not doing a lot of actual teacher-facilitated remote learning,” McNair said. “[The teachers] created work packets, and then they’ll email us additional subject matter for us to provide to the residents, and then we send that back out to the principal. He gets it to the teachers, they grade it and provide feedback.”

As opposed to a seven-hour school day, the center’s youth now have two hours of class in the morning, a lunch break in the afternoon and two more hours of class in the evening for those who still need to complete their work for the day.

Other than education, the rest of the residents’ schedules remain largely the same. Activities, including when they wake up, eat their meals and have leisure time, are still set by a master schedule as they were before the pandemic, McNair said.

NVJDC staff have tried to keep the lives of the center’s youth as normal as possible, organizing an Easter egg hunt in April and a Cinco de Mayo meal on Tuesday with food from Chipotle.

The center took certain precautions early on to prevent the virus from spreading within the facility, McNair said. In the first week of March, staff increased cleaning regimens for the facility. Over the next few weeks, the center restricted all in-person visits to the facility.

As a result, the center has increased its residents’ access to video and phone calls home, McNair said.

Staff get their temperature taken every day upon entering the facility, while the adolescents at the facility have their temperature taken three times a day. New residents are housed separately while they are monitored for symptoms of COVID-19 and must be cleared by the center’s medical staff.

Contractors are required to fill out a questionnaire detailing where they’ve been, whether they’ve been exposed to anyone with an illness and how they feel.

“On our questionnaire we don’t just say, ‘[Do you have] the sore throat, the fever?’ Do you just generally not feel well today? Because if that’s ‘yes,’ we’re going to air on the side of caution and let that staff go home or send that staff home,” McNair said.

In order to promote social distancing, staff rearranged the furniture in public areas, removing chairs and table sets and leaving the living room furniture. In the dining hall, residents sit one per table, a practice that is easy to maintain given the low number of youth currently housed at the NVJDC.

The detention center is currently filling less than 25 percent of its 70-bed capacity. The center’s low volume has recently sparked conversations about potentially shuttering the facility, yet those low numbers have allowed McNair and her staff to closely monitor for any signs of the virus.

“I have a very low population – I have 16 residents today – so until we have a symptomatic kid, or a suspicion of one, we will not change very much of their routine,” McNair said.

McNair quarantined a few members of her staff, but those employees were teleworking and were able to consult their doctors, who told them to self-isolate at home for 14 days.

One of the biggest impacts to the facility has been the inability for volunteers to provide services and activities for the adolescents.

“On average we have anywhere between 35 to 45 volunteer hours a month where churches and other groups that been in a relationship with us come in and provide services,” McNair said. “Of course, that had to be suspended when the risk of community spread became a serious thing for all of us.”

Although volunteers have continued to support the center, sending resources, including iPads, to the youth, the lack of in-person volunteering has left holes in residents’ weekend schedules.

During the weekends, when the residents don’t have school, volunteers typically visit and offer activities ranging from rugby matches to yoga classes. Now, the NVJDC staff have had to fill their absences.

The child-centered approach McNair brought to the facility when she joined in 2017 has helped ease the transition for staff and residents alike. Even before the pandemic, McNair had invested in additional training for her staff so that they could provide beneficial activities for the adolescents.

“We’ve just had to make adjustments to how we keep our kids engaged,” McNair said. “I’ve spent lots of money to have our staff trained to be able to facilitate meaningful adolescent-focused activities that we’ve been able to kind of fill this void with.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) announced on Monday that he hopes to begin the first phase of reopening the state on May 15. McNair said she remains committed to following the state and federal guidelines, but expressed cautious anticipation for what the reopening means for the detention center.

Once things are safe, McNair wants to get volunteers and interns back in the facility to help get the adolescents involved and working in the community again, she said.

“I have to be very careful about it, but we will look at it, monitor it and as long as our volunteers are willing to submit to the screening that all of our staff are doing now, as long as we continue to do that, I’d like to open that back up,” McNair said.