Reston, VA

Fairfax County Public Schools could start expanding in-person learning to more students again in January.

Under a draft timeline that FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand presented to the county school board last night (Thursday), all students will learn virtually for the first week after winter break, which lasts from Dec. 21 through Jan. 3.

Students who opt for hybrid in-person/virtual learning would then begin returning to school buildings on Jan. 12, starting with five cohorts that encompass pre-K and kindergarten students, as well as students in special education, English learners, and other specialized programs.

Elementary school students will be phased in, two grades at a time, between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Middle and high school students have been split in two groups, with seventh, ninth, and 12th graders returning on Jan. 26, and eighth, 10th, and 11th graders returning on Feb. 2.

“This plan is contingent on health and operational metrics being met,” Brabrand emphasized. “We’ll provide the board an update on this plan on Jan. 5 at our next monthly return-to-school work session and as needed as we get closer to the target dates for the groups.”

During the school board work session, Brabrand also laid out plans for a revised bell schedule to accommodate the increased time and reduced capacity needed to transport students to school by bus, a change that he acknowledged will present challenges for some families and employees.

“However, it is the only way we can return all of our grade levels back to in-person following health and safety guidance,” he said.

To address concerns about students falling behind academically while learning online, FCPS will loosen its grading policies and implement a system of interventions to give more individualized support to students who are struggling. English learners and special education students will also receive targeted support, including teacher-family conferences and regular check-ins.

Brabrand’s Dec. 10 presentation represents represent FCPS’s first concrete effort to resume a process that began on Oct. 5 but was suspended on Nov. 16 after Fairfax County’s COVID-19 caseload exceeded established thresholds for phasing students back into in-person learning.

Whether the new Return to School plan will actually come to fruition as proposed remains to be seen, as the Fairfax Health District continues to report record levels of COVID-19 transmission.

Brabrand alerted the school board that about 4,100 students are on track to revert back to all-virtual learning on Dec. 14, because tomorrow could mark the seventh day in a row where the county averages more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people and has more than 10% COVID-19 tests come back positive over a two-week span.

The superintendent said that FCPS has already sent letters to families whose students will be affected letting them know that a return to virtual learning could happen, though it will be confirmed on Saturday.

School officials have stressed the importance of mitigation strategies, such as social distancing and face mask requirements, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread and avoid the need to return all students to distance learning. FCPS announced earlier this week that it is assembling safety teams to monitor adherence to public health protocols at schools that have reopened.

However, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers reported yesterday that it had recorded 72 safety violations since Oct. 23 through an online safety violation tracker. Members also reported in a survey conducted by the labor union that they have not seen consistent use of masks, social distancing, respiratory etiquette, and proper cleaning and disinfecting practices.

Since Sept. 8, FCPS has recorded 454 COVID-19 cases out of 12,104 in-person students and staff, a more than 3% positivity rate.

The FCFT argues that FCPS should transition all students and staff to virtual instruction until Fairfax County’s COVID-19 positivity rate drops below 5% and all of its standards for a safe reopening are met.

“FCPS’ introduction of a ‘mitigation strategies’ metric is important, but should not be prioritized over community spread of COVID-19,” FCFT President Tina Williams said in a statement. “…Our schools are part of our community and if COVID is spreading in our community, that means it is spreading in our schools.”

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