As a tumultuous year of school closures and virtual learning inches toward a close, students in Fairfax County Public Schools say they are exhausted and feel forgotten by the administration and school board.
Their frustrations bubbled over during a school board meeting on Dec. 3. Two students took issue with recent headlines about upticks in failing grades and the board’s focus on how to resume in-person classes over how to improve the distance-learning experience.
John R. Lewis High School student Kimberly Boateng, who previously served as the school board’s student representative, chastised the board, saying its members have not demonstrated that they have turned the comments and criticisms she has submitted by letter, email and tweet into action.
She urged the county to do better, saying that she is tired of “aspirational goals” and wants the board and FCPS administrators to take concrete actions.
“I’m tired of the ‘we see you’ emails, the ‘we hear you’ tweets,” she said. “…Students are surrounded by so much grief, trauma, and death, and we are expected to continue on as if this is normal. This is not normal.”
As the board’s current student representative, South County High School student Nathan Onibudo said he is caught between knowing the extent of the county’s efforts to address the challenges caused by COVID-19 and experiencing the reality of student life.
“I see what’s possible and I see the hard work being put in,” he said. “[Many students] feel like somehow, they’re being forgotten even though all the conversations are about them.”
He told the school board that, for many students, the debate over whether they should learn virtually or in-person has become secondary to the struggle to survive each day.
“Students are simply suffering,” he said.
Boateng echoed that sentiment, saying that she feels unable to take a mental health day because it would bury her deeper under tasks.
“Students are sitting in front of their computer screens wondering when they’re going to catch a break, and the break never comes,” she said.
During an open comment period later in the school board meeting, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand and a handful of board members promised to take action.
“Nathan, I heard you. Our leadership team heard you, our principals heard you, our staff heard you,” Brabrand said. “Kimberly, I sat with you here last year. I heard you. We want your voice and your input as we continue through this year, and we will use your recommendations to make the changes necessary to be sure students are heard, listened to, respected, valued.”
Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett Sanders noted the board is also hearing about the impact of the pandemic on the county’s school children from parents, parent-teacher associations, neighbors, and relatives.
Springfield District School Board Member Laura Jane Cohen told the students that the board is “trying to get better answers.”
“I know sometimes it rings hollow, but please, hang in there and just know that we’re trying to make things better right now,” Cohen said.