Reston, VA

The Fairfax County Planning Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday (Mar. 3) to recommend that the county replace its current zoning code with a new draft resulting from the Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project (zMOD) that has now been underway for almost four years.

The 12-0 vote came after more than an hour of debate over the county’s proposed regulations for accessory living units(ALUs) — independent residential units located on the same property as a primary dwelling — and home-based businesses, which have emerged as two of the most contentious components of the 614-page document.

“The zMOD result on ALUs and home-based businesses, I believe, misses the mark,” Mason District Commissioner Julie Strandlie said. “It does not incorporate community concern and avoids a significant opportunity to make a real difference in housing policy. If we want to successfully expand housing options, we need community input, involvement, and buy-in.”

Released on Feb. 17, the draft zoning ordinance crafted by county planning staff and the consultant Clarion proposed allowing ALUs for single-family detached dwellings with an administrative permit if they meet certain requirements, including a maximum gross floor area of 800 square feet or 40% of the principal dwelling and that an occupant be at least 55 years old or have a disability.

Citing an “exceptional amount” of public opposition to that proposal, including at a public hearing on Jan. 28, the planning commission recommended that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors instead utilize a special permit review process for all ALUs, which requires property owners to notify neighbors and make their case at a public hearing.

“This [administrative] process — what I’m seeing and what I’ve personally experienced — it pits neighbor against neighbor, or potentially could put neighbor against neighbor,” Mount Vernon District Commissioner Walter Clarke said. “I think it’s only fair, and we owe it to the citizens of this community, to have a process whereby they still can be engaged.”

The commission also recommended lifting the requirement that an occupant have a disability or be 55 years or older when an ALU is approved with a special permit, and allowing units to fill a basement or cellar based on its existing size on the date the new zoning ordinance becomes effective.

The commission also recommended amending the draft to prohibit on-site customers for home-based businesses approved through an administrative permit, except in cases involving instructional activities at a “specialized instruction center” — i.e., private tutoring or music lessons — or a health and exercise facility.

Instruction centers and health and exercise facilities could have up to four students at a time and eight students in a day. Other home-based businesses could have customers if they obtain a special permit.

In addition, all home-based businesses will have to be approved by the Fairfax County Health Department if there is a well or septic tank on site, a provision that was already proposed for ALUs.

While acknowledging that ALUs could help people who otherwise might not be able to afford to live in Fairfax County, the majority of commissioners ultimately expressed reservations about loosening restrictions across the entire county without getting a clearer sense of the potential impact on traffic, parking, and other issues, especially in high-density areas.

“While I do believe that accessory living units can provide an opportunity for additional living space in our very expensive county, I believe additional time is needed for study of the proposed countywide applications of accessory living units by administrative review,” At-Large Commissioner Timothy Sargeant said.

The commission recommended that the Board of Supervisors direct the county planning department to convene a task force that will study ALUs and home-based businesses for 18 months and deliver a report with any recommendations for further changes to the zoning ordinance.

Earlier in the meeting, the commission shot down a proposed zoning amendment that would have altered regulations for flags and flag poles, calling it “a solution in search of a problem.” The county’s only existing regulation for flags is a limit of three per lot.

Fairfax County launched its zMOD initiative in March 2017 with the goal of simplifying and updating a document that had not undergone a comprehensive revision since it was first adopted 40 years ago.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the new zoning ordinance on Tuesday (Mar. 9). If the ordinance is adopted as it was approved by the planning commission, it would take effect at 12:01 a.m. on July 1.

Image via Town of Vienna

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Hispanic residents of Fairfax County are seven times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts when adjusted for variations in age, county data suggests.

Fairfax County Director of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Benjamin Schwartz reported that sobering trend to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors during its health and human services committee meeting yesterday (Tuesday) as part of a broad overview of the county’s efforts to implement an equity-focused strategy to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Knowing that the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, especially Black, indigenous, and Latino people, Fairfax County staff calculated the relative risk levels for infection, hospitalization, and death faced by different races and ethnicities, using white, non-Hispanic individuals as the control group.

According to the county, the results show that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is 1.8 times greater for Black people than for white people and four times greater for Latino or Hispanic people, who are also seven times more at risk of hospitalization.

In Fairfax County, Black people are being hospitalized at more than three times the rate of white people and are almost three times as likely to die from the disease.

Schwartz says the data focuses on community transmission, excluding long-term care facilities, and it has been adjusted for age, meaning it eliminates variances in age across different populations. It shows, for instance, that Latinos are more likely to die from or be hospitalized by COVID-19, even though the county’s Latino population is generally younger and older people are considered more at risk.

“This really highlights the social, economic, and medical risk factors pertaining to different groups in our county,” Schwartz said, mentioning large households, exposures through work, and underlying health conditions among the factors that have made some populations more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Fairfax County Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce says the county is utilizing its COVID-19 Vulnerability Index as well as data showing the disease’s spread to identify areas that need a targeted approach for vaccine outreach and distribution, often because residents have limited access to medical care, transportation, and other public services.

“There are a lot of intersecting factors which are preventing people’s access to resources or access to the vaccine,” Bruce said. “So, we want to understand and look at how we might be better able to connect people to what will enable them to then connect to the vaccine.”

The county has been working with different community partners, including nonprofits and faith-based organizations, not only to counter vaccine hesitancy with education and trust-building, but also to identify people who are currently eligible to get vaccinated and register them for an appointment.

To improve the accessibility of the vaccine, the Fairfax County Health Department has been developing a network of community-based partner clinics that is expected to grow in the coming weeks, as seen in the slide below:

Schwartz says the Neighborhood Health federally qualified health center at the Bailey’s Community Center and the Safeway community clinic at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church will start administering vaccinations this coming weekend.

The health department is also looking at sites in Lorton, Springfield, and Centreville, but the agreements are still being finalized.

“It will take a couple of weeks to have our clinics established, to confirm medical and non-medical staff for those clinics, and to get into a rhythm with the vaccinations,” Schwartz said. “But we are anticipating making substantial progress to reduce disparities in who receives vaccination in the county.”

Photo via Fairfax County, slides via Fairfax County Health Department (1, 2)

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Approving a new calendar for the coming school year is typically one of the more routine duties administered by the Fairfax County School Board, but this time, it has become another decision complicated by competing priorities and added stakes.

The board will hold a work session at 11 a.m. today (Tuesday) to discuss proposals for the 2021-2022 school year calendar that would add four religious observance holidays not included in the current school calendar: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 7, 2021), Yom Kippur (Sept. 16, 2021), Diwali (Nov. 4, 2021), and Eid al Fitr (May 3, 2022).

Faith organizations representing Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh communities in the D.C. area have been advocating for Fairfax County Public Schools to recognize those holidays for years, an effort that began gaining traction in 2019 when the school board first convened a Religious Observance Task Force to advise the district on how it could better serve students of different faiths.

With input from the task force, a committee charged with developing the school year calendar released two drafts last June that both incorporated the proposed new holidays.

However, when the school board met on Feb. 2 to discuss the issue, FCPS presented a third draft that did not include the holidays, as some school board members expressed reservations about having more school closures after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting learning or making it more difficult for many students, among other concerns.

The religious groups involved in the task force — including the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), the Durga Temple of Virginia, Hindu American Foundation, McLean Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Sikh Foundation of Virginia, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) — expressed “deep disappointment” in the new turn of events in a letter sent to the school board on Feb. 9.

Disputing the idea that closing schools on four extra days would significantly affect FCPS’ ability to address learning losses, the task force criticized the board for not notifying them or the public about the new proposed draft calendar. They also noted that other jurisidictions in Northern Virginia, including Arlington, Prince William, and Loudoun counties, already recognize some or all of the holidays in question.

“We are troubled that FCPS’ natural progression to a more inclusive understanding of equity and diversity now stands to be thwarted,” the groups said. “We urge you not to obstruct or delay progress, but rather to move forward with confidence and conviction.”

As of Mar. 1, 269 current FCPS students had signed a petition from JCRC calling for the school board to add the religious holidays.

The school board will vote to officially adopt a calendar for the next school year on Mar. 16.

Photo via Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

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The rate of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Fairfax Health District remained steady over the past week, as Virginia announced over the weekend that a third vaccine will be available for distribution starting this week.

With an additional 132 cases reported today (Monday), there have now been a total of 67,547 COVID-19 cases recorded in Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. The novel coronavirus has put 3,564 people in the hospital and killed 969 people since the district identified its first presumptive positive case roughly one year ago.

Fairfax County has averaged 198 new cases over the past seven days, maintaining a weekly average has hovered around 200 cases since Feb. 20. While that represents a significant decline from the winter peak of 697 cases on Jan. 17, the COVID-19 case rate has not yet returned to the relatively low levels seen last summer and into the fall before cold weather set in.

With new cases and testing positivity rates falling across Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam has eased some of the public health restrictions that had been put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Starting today, the 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales at bars and restaurants has been lifted, and the caps on outdoor social gatherings has increased from 10 to 25 people. After previously being limited to 250 people, outdoor entertainment and amusement venues can also now have up to 1,000 people or 30% capacity.

The most notable development in the U.S.’s efforts to control the pandemic came on Saturday (Feb. 27), when the Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization to a new COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that only requires one dose, instead of the two needed for the already authorized Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines.

The Virginia Department of Health said that the state expects to receive 69,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week that will be prioritized for mass vaccination clinics. An additional allotment will go to pharmacies that are participating in a federal partnership that focuses on vaccinating people 65 and older.

“VDH encourages all providers who schedule vaccine appointments to advise individuals which vaccine they will receive,” the state health department said. “…All three vaccines have been proven to be effective at preventing COVID-19-related hospitalization and death.”

According to the VDH data dashboard, Fairfax County has now administered 224,329 vaccine doses to 140,803 people. 83,526 people in the county have been fully vaccinated.

The Fairfax County Health Department is still working through the 44,036 people who signed up for a vaccine appointment on Jan. 18, which saw more registrations than any other day so far. As of 10 a.m. today, the county had registered 267,170 people for an appointment, 95,457 of whom were still on the waitlist.

Images via CDC on Unsplash, Virginia Department of Health

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Trash collectors in Fairfax County will not pick up leaves, grass clippings, and other yard waste stored in plastic bags when the collection season begins on Monday (Mar. 1).

After holding a public hearing, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 on Tuesday (Feb. 23) to officially prohibit the use of plastic bags for yard waste by amending its Solid Waste Management Ordinance, a move that supporters say is necessary to reduce pollution and make the county more environmentally friendly.

“To reverse climate catastrophe, each of us must make many small and large steps,” Faith Alliance for Climate SolutionsBoard Chair Eric Goplerud said when testifying at the public hearing. “Banning plastic bags to contain yard waste is a step that the Board of Supervisors can take to lead our community to care for our common home, the Earth.”

Fairfax County began transitioning away from using plastic bags for yard waste last year, encouraging residents to use compostable paper bags or reusable containers instead.

In an update to the board’s environmental committee on Oct. 27, county staff reported that about 51% of homes surveyed during the 2020 yard waste season were still utilizing plastic bags, but Fairfax County Director of Engineering and Environmental Compliance Eric Forbes says he is “hopeful and confident” that the bags can be eliminated after the past year of education and outreach.

Now that the ban has been approved, the county’s solid waste management program is encouraging private trash and recycling collection companies to notify their customers that waste in plastic bags will no longer be collected.

“We do not anticipate a hundred percent success rate in the beginning, but we will continue our outreach and collaboration with industry to help our community to reach compliance with the new requirements,” Forbes said.

Forbes acknowledged that compostable paper bags are slightly more expensive to buy than plastic bags. County staff found that paper bags designed to carry yard waste cost about 50 cents per bag, whereas plastic bags cost around 30 cents.

Yet, the overall cost of utilizing plastic may be greater, since the material is difficult to extract and can damage equipment during the composting process, pushing up costs for collectors and, by extension, customers, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says.

While paper bags are preferable to plastic, Forbes noted that residents can avoid the costs of yard waste removal altogether by managing it on-site with backyard composting or allowing grass clippings to decompose on their lawn, a practice known as grasscycling.

McKay says he got 75 emails on the proposed ban, with an even split between supporters and opponents, but he believes it is time for Fairfax County to join the rest of the D.C. region, where some jurisdictions have required paper bags or reusable containers for more than a decade.

“We ultimately just have to decide whether we think this is a good idea or not,” McKay said. “…I think clearly, based on the testimony that we’ve heard today, based on where everyone around the region is, and frankly, based on where the science is, this is something that we must do now to help with our environmental challenges.”

Photo via Fairfax County Government

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The Shepherd’s Center that serves Oakton, Vienna, Reston, and Herndon is no more.

The local nonprofit organization, which provides services to older adults, has merged with an affiliate in Great Falls to form the Shepherd’s Center of Northern Virginia (SCNOVA), the new organization’s interim executive director, Jayne Young, announced on Feb. 15.

Young says the Oakton/Vienna/Reston/Herndon Shepherd’s Center and Shepherd’s Center of Great Falls started exploring options to improve their reach and efficiency several months ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nonprofits to reevaluate how they deliver services.

“Certainly, the pandemic has challenged us to find new ways of tackling most anything you can think of,” Young said in a letter. “For our Shepherd’s Center, that included taking a look at the way we meet our mission so we ensure that we continue delivering impactful services as efficiently as possible.”

The merger will give clients from the smaller Great Falls center access to more services, while combining the resources and volunteer networks of the two organizations, which are both affiliates of the Shepherd’s Centers of America.

Young says all Great Falls volunteers and clients will be transferred to SCNOVA, which will operate out of the existing Oakton/Vienna/Reston/Herndon facility at 541 Marshall Road in Vienna. Free transportation services will also still be provided to seniors in Great Falls.

The full transition is expected to be completed on Sunday (Feb. 28).

Founded in 1997, the Shepherd’s Center of Oakton-Vienna expanded to include the Reston and Herndon areas in 2019.

The nonprofit assists adults 55 and older with free transportation to medical and therapy appointments, food pick-up and delivery, minor home repairs, and health counseling and referrals. It also offers educational classes, luncheons, caregiver support groups, and other community programs.

“We are excited to begin 2021 with such good news!” Young said in her letter. “Working together, we hope to provide even better and more impactful services to seniors in Northern Virginia.”

Image via Google Maps

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(Updated at 11:05 a.m.) In the past eight months, the students in Vanessa Edwards’s nursing class have become well-versed in adapting to change.

After starting the school year in a virtual setting in July, they were among the roughly 8,000 students that attended in-person classes in the fall, only to revert to online classes when Fairfax County Public Schools paused plans for in-person instruction after winter break.

So, no one was fazed when a fire alarm blared through the halls of Fairfax County Adult High School in Springfield half an hour into Edwards’s first in-person class of 2021 on Wednesday (Feb. 17).

For faculty and students alike, the short-lived, familiar inconvenience of a fire drill paled in comparison to the relief of getting to interact with people face-to-face instead of through screens.

“Teaching nursing, there are certain skills and things you cannot teach virtual, so it makes it a lot more challenging to try and come up with ways to teach them,” Edwards said. “…We’re very excited to be back now in person, and hopefully, we’ll be able to stay in person through the remainder of the year.”

The School of Practical Nursing is among a handful of specialized career and technical education (CTE) programs that restarted in-person classes this past week, along with many young students with disabilities.

With local and regional COVID-19 transmission rates on the decline, FCPS is attempting to bring students back into buildings in phases, with in-person classes expanding to all grade levels by Mar. 16.

A licensed and registered nurse who worked at local hospitals and doctors’ offices for 21 years before being hired as a teacher by FCPS, Edwards says she feels “well-prepared” to resume in-person classes after seeing consistent compliance with mask requirements and other procedures in the fall.

It helps that her class only has 10 students this year and uses a spacious room that allows for plenty of distance between desks, luxuries that will not be available to all classes.

While the small class size means she hasn’t had to try it herself, Edwards thinks the hybrid, concurrent learning model that FCPS is implementing will help by reducing the number of students in a room at any given time.

“I think it is safe, coming back,” Edwards said. “I think having the less amount of people in one classroom is a good idea, and [it’s important] to just maintain the protocols.”

As of Feb. 18, FCPS has recorded 972 COVID-19 cases among staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8, but there do not appear to be any in Fairfax County Adult High School, which houses the School of Practical Nursing and other CTE programs in the Plum Center for Lifelong Learning.

Open to rising high school seniors, the School of Practical Nursing is a rigorous, 15-month program designed to give students the skills and education they need to take the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) and get approved as a licensed practical nurse by the Virginia Board of Nursing.

On top of traditional schoolwork, students get clinical training at hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other real-world health care settings — experiences that would be difficult, if not impossible to replicate virtually.

As a result, distance learning required a lot of adjustments for Edwards, who adapted the curriculum to focus on more academic subjects like anatomy and physiology, as well as her students.

18-year-old Andrea Chevez found that she had to study harder and put more conscious effort into asking her teachers questions while learning virtually, but it helped to know that she wasn’t going through the experience alone.

“We were looking out for each other [as a class], making sure that we were communicating more than usual,” Chevez said. “So, it wasn’t easy, but it was definitely not impossible, or we made the best out of it.”

When the opportunity to have in-person classes came up in October, Chevez and her family were nervous enough about the potential health risks that they considered not having her attend.

In the end, though, they felt reassured by the precautions that FCPS was putting in place, and she says getting in-person instruction made her less stressed and improved her ability to understand and retain the information that she was being taught.

While the first day back in person started with a 50-minute test, Edwards has more hands-on activities planned as well. Students are getting CPR certification training, and the classroom has a simulation mannequin that can be programmed to talk, enabling them to practice conducting assessments.

Edwards has also been incorporating lessons from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic into her teaching throughout the year.

“I hope not, [but] in the future, some other thing could end up happening, another pandemic or epidemic,” Edwards said. “It happens, it can happen, and they’ll be that much more prepared, and coming into health care during this time will definitely make them a stronger nurse.”

Chevez says she has always wanted to pursue a career in the medical field as a way to help and give back to her community, but knowing the challenges that health care workers are facing to tackle a daunting crisis has further cemented her determination to follow in their footsteps.

“The amount of work and hours that nurses are putting in to make sure they’re giving the best that they can possibly give the patient, especially at times like this, it just motivates me to make sure I get to where I want to be in order to help other people,” she said.

Staff photo by Angela Woolsey

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Metrorail is now operating at the same frequency during peak and off-peak hours on weekdays after budget changes prompted by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic took effect yesterday (Monday).

Under the revised Fiscal Year 2021 budget, trains are running every 12 minutes on the Orange, Silver, Blue, Green, and Yellow lines, while Red line trains operate every six minutes. Service after 7 p.m. and on weekends has not been altered.

The reduction of rail service during weekday rush hours was recommended as part of a revised FY 2021 budget that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board of Directors approved when it met on Nov. 19.

“The changes bring rail service in line with ridership demand while managing costs amid pandemic-related budget constraints,” WMATA said in a news release. “Rail ridership remains down nearly 90 percent from pre-pandemic levels.”

In contrast, WMATA says Metrobus ridership is only down 55% on weekdays and less on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels, so service will expand to accommodate additional capacity starting on Mar. 14.

“Customers will see more buses, more often on the 125 lines of service currently operating, and more routes will be added to expand bus service on weekends,” WMATA said.

More details about the March Metrobus service changes will be provided at a later date, the transit agency says.

Photo by Chuck Samuelson/Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project

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COVID-19 case rates in Fairfax County have leveled off over the past week after appearing to trend downward since mid-January, when a record 1,485 cases were reported in a single day.

As of today, the county’s seven-day average is at 312.4 cases and has been hovering between 290 and 337 cases since Feb. 4. While the anticipated post-winter holiday surge seems to have tapered off, case levels are still higher than the pandemic’s initial spring peak, when the highest recorded seven-day average was 303 cases on May 31.

With 194 new cases today, the Fairfax Health District has now reported 64,950 COVID-19 cases, 3,482 hospitalizations, and 849 deaths, according to data from the Fairfax County Health Department.

Today also marked the launch of Virginia’s new statewide COVID-19 vaccine registration system, though Fairfax County is not participating for the time being.

Based on a registration data dashboard that went live on Feb. 12, Fairfax County has made slow but discernible progress in its efforts to vaccinate older adults, some groups of essential workers, and other eligible populations.

The Fairfax County Health Department has whittled its waitlist of people who have registered but haven’t been given an appointment yet down to 105,268 people, as of 10 a.m. The list had around 180,000 registrants as recently as last Thursday (Feb. 11). In total, 229,185 people have registered with the county to get the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

The health department is currently making appointments for more than 42,000 people who registered on Jan. 18, which saw particularly high demand since it was the day when the county expanded eligibility for the vaccine to people between the ages of 65 and 74 as well as people with high-risk medical conditions.

People who have registered for an appointment through the county health department can now see where they are in the queue with a registration status checker, though the rollout of that tool was not without its challenges.

Fairfax County has delivered 110,098 of the 114,923 vaccine doses that it has gotten from the Virginia Department of Health so far. About 68% of those doses were adminstered by the county health department, while the remaining 31% were distributed to other providers, like Inova.

According to the VDH, 48,404 people in Fairfax County have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and 163,200 total doses have been administered in the county. That number includes residents and staff at long-term care facilities that have been getting the vaccine through the federal government rather than the local health department.

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All school divisions in Virginia have been directed to establish options for in-person learning by Mar. 15, Gov. Ralph Northam announced today (Friday).

The state is also encouraging school divisions to develop plans to offer some form of classroom instruction during the summer. While extending the school year will not be mandatory, the governor’s office says his administration “is in the process of determining additional resources” to support summer school, including ensuring that educators are properly compensated.

“Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall,” Northam said during a press conference. “I want our schools to do this safely, and I want them to prioritize students who needs this the most…But it’s time for this to happen. It’s critical to prevent greater learning loss and to support our children’s health and well-being.”

Virginia State Superintendent for Public Instruction Dr. James Lane and State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver released interim guidance on Jan. 14 for local education and health officials to use as they determine when and how to offer classes and other activities to students in person.

Northam said he had a “very open, frank conversation” with superintendents from around the state before announcing the Mar. 15 deadline for offering in-person classes.

He also noted that “none of this is set in stone,” but declining COVID-19 case numbers, including testing positivity rates and hospitalizations, as well as increases in vaccinations give him confidence that schools will be able to proceed with reopening and summer school plans.

The governor’s announcement comes just three days after the Fairfax County School Board approved a plan to start phasing students into hybrid in-person learning on Feb. 16. All students who choose to get in-person classes instead of remaining all-virtual will be back in school buildings by Mar. 16 under the timeline developed by Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

FCPS officials have discussed the idea of extending the school year in the hopes of providing more in-person instruction and compensating for the learning losses many students have reportedly experienced as a result of distance learning. However, no official plans have been established yet.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new research last week that indicates schools can safely operate in-person as long as they implement and enforce mitigation measures, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

“In-person learning is critical to the current and future well-being of our children,” Oliver said. “[The Virginia Department of Health] remains committed to supporting school districts in getting kids back into classrooms as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and get Virginians vaccinated.”

Photo via Governor of Virginia/Facebook

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Fairfax County Public Schools students will start resuming in-person instruction on Feb. 16 under a new timeline unanimously approved by the Fairfax County School Board yesterday.

The board intended to formally vote on the latest proposal from FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand during its regular meeting on Thursday (Feb. 4), but enough members stated that they would support the plan during the board’s work session on Tuesday that they ultimately decided to not wait to give their consensus.

“While there’s no guarantee for anything in life regarding a pandemic, I think this is a strong plan with the resources we have to return to some semblance of what school was like before COVID,” Melanie Meren, who represents Hunter Mill District on the school board, said. “Of course, a lot will be different, but I think it’s needed to help people recover their learning loss.”

As with previous Return to School plans, families have a choice between all-virtual learning and a hybrid model with two days of in-person learning and two days of distance learning. All students have been learning virtually since FCPS returned from winter break.

Under the new timeline, students who opt to get some in-person learning will return to school buildings in phases, starting on Feb. 16 with about 8,000 special education and career and technical education students and concluding with third through sixth-grade students on Mar. 16.

This schedule deviates from the one that was implemented in the fall before being suspended in having elementary school students restart in-person learning at the same time or even later than their older peers in middle and high school, whose return will be staggered across Mar. 2 and 9.

Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin questioned the two-week gaps between groups of elementary school students, noting that Loudoun County Public Schools plans to have students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in buildings by Feb. 16.

FCPS officials attributed the extended timeline for elementary schools primarily to staffing issues.

As of Feb. 1, FCPS has filled 74% of the 846 classroom monitor positions that it says are needed to restart in-person learning, but that still leaves 205 vacancies. The biggest gap is in grades three through six, where 94 positions – or 46% — remain vacant.

FCPS Deputy Superintendent Frances Ivey told the school board that, while some may prefer a more aggressive timeline, discussions with elementary school principals indicate that most of them support Brabrand’s proposal.

“There’s an overall positive consensus to the timeline, and recommendations were made based on that feedback,” Ivey said.

Brabrand acknowledged that not all teachers and staff will be fully vaccinated by the time in-person learning restarts, but more than 7,000 FCPS employees had received their first dose by Jan. 25, and nearly 90% of staff members had scheduled an appointment with Inova by Jan. 27.

Inova stopped scheduling first-dose appointments on Jan. 25 due to an anticipated drop in supply levels, but FCPS rescheduled approximately 5,000 appointments that had been canceled over the past weekend, and Brabrand says he is “really confident” that the remainder will be taken care of in the next week or two.

“There really isn’t a perfect Return to School timeline. We’re trying to balance so many competing factors, and that’s what’s been hard,” Brabrand said. “…I am proud of what Inova and the county health department did. They brought us in with open arms and worked through the glitches.”

Even with vaccinations, implementing mitigation protocols like face masks, social distancing, and good hygiene and cleaning practices will be “paramount” to enabling safe in-person learning, according to Brabrand’s presentation.

Individual schools or classes could revert to virtual learning based on COVID-19 transmission levels and staff capacity within those schools, as well as community spread as indicated by the 14-day case rate per 100,000 people and 14-day testing positivity rates.

The inability to create six feet of distance between students on buses will be a challenge, but FCPS officials say they are working with transportation staff to address those concerns, and adequate personal protective equipment will be available for all workers.

“We have certainly enough PPE on hand, and the quality for which we’re purchasing is based on health department guidelines,” FCPS Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said. “…We certainly wouldn’t want to undercut the safety of our staff or students.”

Now that the school board has settled on a Return to School plan, Brabrand said he is committed to ensuring teachers, staff, administrators, and students get what they need to safely and successfully transition back to in-person learning.

“We’ve got to stay on the data,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said. “We’ve got to be as transparent as humanly possible and a lot more transparent than we have been able to be up to this point. Our staff and families deserve to know what they’re walking into.”

Images via FCPS

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Fairfax County has made progress in its efforts to vaccinate priority groups for COVID-19, but challenges remain as officials contend with still-limited supplies while attempting to improve communications and outreach, particularly to minority and disadvantaged communities.

According to a presentation delivered to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning, 53,731 of the 58,825 first doses that the Fairfax County Health Department has received since late December have been administered by either the health department or its partners, which include Emergency Medical Services, the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, pharmacies, and other healthcare providers.

The county health department has also received 25,800 second doses of the Moderna vaccine. 7,875 of those doses have been administered.

With its weekly allocation from Virginia currently limited to 13,600 doses, Fairfax County has scaled back the number of available vaccination sites. The health department is now only providing first doses at the county government center, reserving local health district offices for second doses.

However, the county has also started working with more partners over the past week, including Kaiser, the first private healthcare provider to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and George Mason University’s Mason and Partners (MAP) clinics.

Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu says partnerships like those will be critical to getting the vaccine to more people in Fairfax County, since not everyone can easily travel to the Fairfax County Government Center and other established vaccination sites.

“The ideal thing would be for us to be able to engage clinicians, private providers when we have sufficient vaccine,” Addo-Ayensu said. “…We do know for sure that more vaccine is coming our way, but we just don’t have dates and timelines. All we’re doing right now is building that capacity by engaging with our partners.”

While acknowledging that supply constraints remain the biggest challenge facing the county’s vaccine program, several supervisors shared frustrations that they have heard from constituents who have registered for a vaccination but have no clear sense of when it will actually be their turn to get an appointment. Read More

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The novel coronavirus has now killed 802 people in the Fairfax Health District, which includes Fairfax County and the Cities of Fairfax and Falls Church.

While the number of new cases and hospitalizations appear to be trending downward, Fairfax County has still been averaging 365 COVID-19 cases, eight hospitalizations, and 4.5 deaths per day over the past seven days, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s data.

With 237 new cases today (Monday), the Fairfax Health District has recorded a total of 60,436 COVID-19 cases, and 3,317 people have been hospitalized due to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

After a hectic week of mass appointment cancellations and revamped protocols, state and local officials in Virginia hope that an anticipated increase in vaccine supplies, clearer guidance to health providers, and the pending launch of a centralized registration system will result in a more efficient and less confusing COVID-19 vaccination program.

According to a presentation that Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu is scheduled to deliver to county supervisors tomorrow (Tuesday), Virginia is currently receiving about 105,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines per week. The Fairfax Health District has a weekly allocation of 13,600 doses.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week that the federal government is expected to increase its allocation of vaccine to the Commonwealth by 16%. He also told local health districts to split their supplies evenly between older adults and the other eligible populations, including essential workers and people with high-risk medical conditions.

Fairfax County continues to lead Virginia’s vaccination efforts, administering 95,935 total doses and fully vaccinating 15,864 people as of today. However, that is only a fraction of the 223,625 doses that the Fairfax Health District has received, according to a new VDH dashboard.

As of Jan. 28, the county had a waitlist of 168,422 people who have pre-registered for an appointment through the Fairfax County Health Department, which has been administering the vaccine to older adults, healthcare workers, long-term care facility employees, and people with underlying medical conditions.

Essential workers, including teachers and first responders, have been getting vaccinated through special clinics from Inova Health Systems, which has reported administering about 75,000 doses. Last week, the nonprofit ceased giving new appointments for people looking to receive their first dose, though Fairfax County Public Schools was able to reschedule appointments for its staff that had been canceled.

Overall, Virginia has received 1.3 million vaccine doses, administered 843,230 doses, and fully vaccinated 124,407 people. The pace of vaccinations has been picking up, with the Commonwealth now averaging 33,675 doses a day, but remains short of Northam’s goal of 50,000 per day.

Images via CDC on Unsplash, VDH, Fairfax County Health Department

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Fairfax County should provide hazard pay to all local government workers, a union that represents more than 2,000 general county employees argues.

The county is currently considering a proposal to provide a one-time $1,500 hazard pay bonus to workers who are at high risk of exposure to COVID-19. Staff say about 4,000 employees would be eligible for the benefit.

However, SEIU Virginia 512 — the Fairfax County government employees’ union — says the bonus should be available to all workers, because they have all taken risks and been forced to adapt so the county can keep providing essential services during the pandemic.

As of yesterday (Wednesday), a petition urging Fairfax County supervisors to extend $1,500 hazard pay bonuses to all staff has been signed by nearly 1,000 workers, with more signatures expected to come, according to SEIU Senior Communications Specialist Rachel Mann.

“We’ve all been impacted by what’s going on. Whether we are doing our assigned work or not, we are still working,” SEIU Virginia 512 Executive Board President Tammie Wondong said. “…We are continuing to keep Fairfax County running. Residents are being continually served. So, that’s why everyone needs to have hazard pay.”

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors was initially scheduled to vote on the proposed plan on Tuesday (Jan. 26), but the decision was postponed after Chairman Jeff McKay asked staff to continue discussions with the union and other workers’ groups.

Under the staff plan, hazard pay would go to workers whose risk of being exposed to COVID-19 is rated “high” or “very high” by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) risk assessment. It would also be limited to merit or career positions.

Fairfax County intends to pay for the bonuses using CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds. Federal guidelines, however, dictate that CARES Act money can only be used for hazard pay if an employee is performing duties that involve physical hardship related to COVID-19 response efforts.

In other words, localities must establish criteria for hazard pay eligibility to use CARES relief funds, Fairfax County Department of Management and Budget Director Christina Jackson told the board on Jan. 12.

The county could use its own funds to extend hazard pay to more workers, but McKay suggests employees should temper their expectations for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

“Based on the economic impacts of the ongoing pandemic, it will be challenging to address many of the Board’s priorities in the FY2022 [budget],” McKay said in a statement to Tysons Reporter. “The budget is still early stages and we are exploring what options are available, but it is unlikely we would have the resources to increase hazard pay funding in the next budget cycle.”

SEIU Virginia 512 supports the amount of the proposed bonus, which came out of talks between workers’ groups and county staff, but the union argues restricting hazard pay to select positions and agencies ignores the risks all employees face when doing their jobs.

For instance, a sanitation worker may not typically come into direct contact with the residents whose trash they collect, but their job still requires them to regularly go out into the community.

“You don’t know who you’re passing, and you don’t know who’s infected. You just don’t know,” Wondong said. “It’s a risk that we take just coming in and out of our homes every day.”

The burden placed on workers who test positive for COVID-19 to prove they contracted the disease through their job could also potentially be a concern.

Further complicating matters, Fairfax County has been reassigning many employees to duties outside their usual purview as some departments have reduced operations and others have ramped up during the pandemic.

Wondong is a social worker for the county’s aging and older adults services division, but she is currently working in a different role for her department, one that allows her to work from home but also normally carries a higher salary than what she’s being paid.

Wondong says hazard pay would not be up for debate if Fairfax County employees had stronger collective bargaining powers to guarantee equitable compensation and working conditions.

“What we believe as a union is that all county workers deserve fairness and equity when it comes to pay and benefits. That’s what we believe,” Wondong said.

Photo via Fairfax County government/Facebook

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Fairfax County employees are now prohibited from providing information about a person’s immigration or citizenship status to federal immigration authorities unless required by law or court order.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to adopt the new Public Trust and Confidentiality Policy yesterday (Tuesday) as part of a board matter introduced by Chairman Jeff McKay, Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, and Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik.

While Fairfax County has long maintained that it does not assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless mandated, McKay, Foust, and Palchik say the need to turn those guidelines into a formal policy has been heightened the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected local Latino communities in particular.

“While there are no known instances of General County employees voluntarily sharing information about a resident’s immigration status, such policies are no doubt critical steps forward in building community trust and transparency,” the board matter said. “They also help quell fear in our community and ensure everyone feels comfortable getting the assistance they need from local government.”

The immigrant rights groups ACLU People Power Fairfax and CASA hailed the trust policy as “a major victory” after a four-year campaign urging Fairfax County to bar agencies from voluntarily disclosing information to ICE.

Advocates have argued that information-sharing with ICE can undermine public safety, as fear of detention or deportation discourages immigrants from reporting crimes, seeking medical attention, going to school, accessing basic needs assistance, and utilizing other critical local government services.

CASA says Fairfax County’s new policy is the first of its kind in Virginia.

“For four years, we have marched, spoken out and stood up for our rights as immigrants, and now we can finally breathe easier,” Luis Aguilar, CASA’s Virginia state director, said. “We are grateful for the leadership of Chairman McKay and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who stood strongly in support of immigrant families by voting through this critical county policy change.”

The Board of Supervisors directed staff to draft the new policy last year. McKay credits ACLU People Power Fairfax and CASA with helping develop the policy.

According to the board matter, the trust policy is intended to complement a Fairfax County Police Department general order that established more robust guidelines regarding the FCPD’s role in civil immigration cases and interactions with immigrants.

Implemented on May 6, the general order expanded on an existing directive that instructed officers against taking individuals into custody or reporting them to ICE solely on the basis of an outstanding civil administrative warrant.

Under the new trust policy, Fairfax County employees are now prohibited from:

  • Disclosing personal identifying information about individuals, such as their citizenship or immigration status, unless required by law or the individual has given their permission
  • Providing access to county facilities, records, or funds not accessible to the public unless mandated by law, court order, or a criminal warrant
  • Using county resources to provide information to federal immigration enforcement officials
  • Threatening, coercing, or intimidating individuals based on their actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status
  • Participating in civil immigration enforcement operations

The policy also directs county agencies to accept driver’s licenses, passports, and other photo documents issued by a state or foreign government or an approved nonprofit as sufficient to verify an individual’s identity or address.

“The Trust Policy breaks new ground in Virginia by prohibiting voluntary cooperation with ICE,” ACLU People Power Fairfax Lead Advocate Diane Burkley Alejandro said. “…ICE has exploited the weaknesses of Virginia privacy laws to obtain contact information to track down its ‘targets.’ Thanks to Chairman McKay and the Board, Fairfax now has guardrails in place to prevent this happening here.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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