EXCLUSIVE: Communication gaps lead South Lakes students to break FCPS COVID-19 protocols

To keep school buildings open five days a week, Fairfax County Public Schools has worked with county health officials to develop intricate procedures for handling reported COVID-19 cases, but the school system has been notifying students that they need to pause in-person learning by email, sometimes late in the day.

This has resulted in some students coming to school early the next morning without knowing that they are a close contact of someone who has contracted the coronavirus and shouldn’t be at school that day.

“Due to the quick turnaround of pause notifications, we are aware that students have incorrectly attended school on a small number of occasions, unaware that they should remain at home,” a FCPS spokesperson told Reston Now. “When this occurs, the school administration acts quickly to alert the student and send them home.”

The FCPS spokesperson confirmed that only one email is required to go out, though some follow-up calls are made, if time allows, to confirm that the communication has been received.

“Currently, email notifications go out in eight different languages to ensure non English speaking families are communicated to in their home language,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Follow-up phone calls, while not currently part of our required notification processes, may be considered as our protocol evolves. Our principals make every effort to reach all our families.”

Earlier this week, Reston Now received a tip from a South Lakes High School teacher that several of their students were in class even though they were sent notifications instructing them to pause in-person learning.

While the students had not directly tested positive for COVID, they were considered close contacts, and under FCPS policies, those students shouldn’t have been in class.

The teacher also says one student who came to their class was “obviously ill,” making them feel unsafe and not confident with school procedures and communications. They are considering their options about returning.

FCPS says teachers are not alerted about these notifications due to privacy concerns, and there is no manual check at the door to see if anyone is entering who shouldn’t be there.

When a student tests positive for COVID-19, principals at each individual school use seating charts to determine who should be considered a close contact, the FCPS spokesperson confirmed.

At that point, the school sends an in-person learning pause notification via email to those close contacts.

A pause typically lasts between one to three days, according to the FCPS website, while the county health department clarifies each student’s vaccination status and completes contact tracing.

The pause takes effect immediately when the notification goes out, the FCPS spokesperson said.

However, if an email goes out in the evening, students and their families might not think to check their email before heading out to school the next morning.

While the notification does go out in nine languages, including English, there remains a possibility that it could not be understood by some.

9% of students at South Lakes High School are “English Learners,” meaning they are learning how to communicate and learn effectively in English. Nearly 30% of Reston residents speak a language other than English at home, according to 2019 census data.

After FCPS sends the initial notification, the Fairfax County Health Department takes over with contact tracing, communicating how long quarantine should be, and providing public health guidance.

Since Aug. 13, South Lakes High School has had seven confirmed positive cases of COVID, according to the FCPS dashboard. This includes three staff and four students.

FCPS has updated its COVID-19 procedures and guidelines over the last week. On Monday (Aug. 30), it announced that all high school students will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in winter and spring school sports.

Just today (Thursday), FCPS said it has worked with the Fairfax County Health Department to speed up the process of identifying students who are fully vaccinated so they can quickly return to in-person learning if they’re identified as a close contact to a positive COVID case.

“We appreciate our community’s patience as we navigate through these challenging times,” the FCPS spokesperson wrote. “As we do our best to provide safe in-person learning, five days a week as mandated by the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

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