Reston, VA

Fairfax County Public School students will attend in-person classes five days a week when the new academic year starts this fall, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand pledged yesterday (Tuesday) at a school board work session.

The commitment came on the same day that FCPS welcomed third and sixth-grade students back into classrooms. This was the final cohort to be phased into hybrid learning, where students who choose to can receive two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction.

Since FCPS initiated its Return to School plan on Feb. 16, more than 98,000 students and staff members have resumed in-person classes. That number will exceed 109,000 students when the transition finishes this Thursday (March 19), according to Brabrand.

Brabrand told the school board that a combination of low levels of reported COVID-19 transmission in schools, declining case rates in the county as a whole, accelerating vaccination efforts, and new research on social distancing in schools gave FCPS officials the confidence to plan to begin the upcoming 2021-2022 school year with full-time in-person classes.

“We have shown that we can return our students and staff to our buildings in a way that is safe and steady,” Brabrand said. “We are confident that we can deliver on a five-day return for all students in the fall, knowing that, while we can adapt to any situation, in-person learning really is the best option for our students and staff.”

According to a presentation by FCPS staff, 0.2% of 86,526 students and staff expected to return to in-person classes have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 26, and only 0.02% reported being infected due to transmission in schools.

As of Tuesday, FCPS had recorded 1,107 cases among students, staff, and visitors since Sept. 8.

FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd reported that the “overwhelming majority” of employees have now been vaccinated, and the school system is working with partners like the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova to get the vaccine to the remaining individuals.

FCPS also anticipates having in-person graduation ceremonies for this year’s high school seniors, though rules for prom, all-night graduation parties, and other social gatherings will likely be more stringent.

Brabrand said Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Health are expected to issue guidance for school districts before April.

With all grade levels now in hybrid learning, FCPS has started to plan for summer school, which will take place in person from late June to early August at all schools for over 40,000 students — 10 times the usual summer school attendance, according to FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio.

Presidio says schools will coordinate enrollment in summer programs with individual families “based on identified student need” in terms of both academic and social-emotional factors.

FCPS also plans to provide up to four days of in-person classes starting after spring break to students who have been struggling the most this year, particularly students with disabilities and English-language learners.

To ensure there is room for those students, anyone who opted for hybrid learning must be in attendance by March 26, the day before spring break begins, or they could be reverted to all-virtual classes.

“If students have registered to attend in-person, we need them to do so on a regular basis,” Presidio said. “It’s really important, because those seats and the capacity in our buildings really is at a premium.”

Even if social distancing guidelines shrink from six feet to three feet, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering, Brabrand cautioned that expanding in-person learning will carry challenges, from ensuring there is adequate space and staffing to convincing skeptical families that schools can operate safely with mitigation measures in place.

He told the school board that limited virtual learning will still be available on a more case-by-case basis, but FCPS believes that most students need in-person classes to have the best chance at being successful in school.

“We have an equity imperative to have all of our students back in person in the 2021-22 school year who don’t otherwise have specific health conditions that would prevent them from returning in the fall,” Brabrand said.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott, slides via FCPS

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