Fairfax County’s logo on the government center (via Machvee/Flickr)

All Fairfax County employees will be required to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests by Monday, Oct. 11, FFXnow has learned.

County government employees who do not get vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 11 will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing to remain employed, including if they receive a medical or religious exemption.

While the county has started providing booster shots to eligible individuals, people are still considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after they receive the second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.

Fairfax County announced that it will implement a vaccine requirement back in August, but no specific date was given for when the mandate would take effect beyond “this fall.”

The county announced its requirement the same day that Fairfax County Public Schools shared its own vaccine mandate for employees, which it said will take effect “late October.”

An FCPS spokesperson confirmed that the end of October remains the school system’s goal for when all employees are expected to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Back in July, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to direct County Executive Bryan Hill to evaluate the possibility of a vaccine requirement for county employees.

“We know vaccinations save lives and that these vaccines are safe and effective,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay wrote in a statement back in August. “Throughout the pandemic we have focused on measures to keep our employees and our community safe, and this is another key piece of that effort. As one of the largest employers in Virginia, and one that has successfully and consistently stressed to our residents the importance of being vaccinated, we must practice what we preach.”

FFXnow has reached out to both the SEIU Virginia 512 and Fairfax Workers Coalition, unions that represent Fairfax County employees, for comment but has not heard back as of publication.

The county’s vaccine requirement falls in line with policies announced by other jurisdictions in the D.C. area, including Arlington County, which has had a mandate in place since the end of August, and Loudoun County, which has not set a timeline yet.

Alexandria City Mayor Justin Wilson said in August that the city anticipated implementing a vaccination requirement in the “September/October timeframe.”

D.C. announced on Sept. 20 that school and child-care workers in the city must get vaccinated with no option to produce a negative test instead. FCPS told FFXnow that it is not changing its plans to have a testing option for employees who don’t get vaccinated.

Virginia’s requirement for state government employees took effect on Sept. 1, and President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Sept. 9 requiring all federal government workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Photo via Machvee/Flickr

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Fairfax County will resume an effort today (Wednesday) to avoid arresting people in mental health crises by using behavioral health experts in the hopes of eventually putting the service into effect 24/7.

Pairing a crisis intervention specialist with specially trained police officers, the “co-responder” teams address 911 calls related to behavioral health issues for the resumed service, a micropilot program that is expected to be in place three days a week.

“Over time, we’re going to have a better sense of handling these types of calls, and we might get to a place where we don’t have to have both behavioral health and police at the same time,” said Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee.

The county initially tested the approach for over a month this past March with teams working in eight-hour shifts Wednesdays through Fridays, ultimately diverting 40% of incidents from potential arrest or hospitalization.

One such case involved a family situation between siblings, where an autistic man assaulted his adult sister, said Abbey May, emergency and crisis services director for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB), which provides multiple mobile emergency response services, among other health supports.

“She had locked herself in the bathroom and reported her brother had slipped a knife under the door to intimidate her,” May said.

A co-responder team gathered critical information from talking to the woman, asking what calms her brother down and what makes him upset. The police officers and crisis intervention specialists explained that they were both there to help.

“They were able to successfully de-escalate the situation without the use of force, incarceration, or hospitalization,” May told the Board of Supervisors yesterday (Tuesday) at its public safety committee meeting.

To support the resumed micropilot program, the CSB is reallocating one of its two Mobile Crisis Units. The pairings with police will continue on a limited basis, and it’s unclear how long the initiative will last this time, but it could serve as a bridge to an expanded service, said Lisa Potter, director of the county’s Diversion First program.

The county’s effort to reform how it responds to certain 911 calls comes after Virginia adopted a law last year creating a Marcus Alert system.

Named after high school biology teacher Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by a police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis in 2018, the statewide system is designed to ensure behavioral health experts are involved in emergency responses related to mental health and substance use issues.

The law requires every Community Services Board to create a co-responder model. Fairfax County must have a program in place by July 2023 and is now working to align its initiatives with the new state requirements.

Fairfax County could use its American Rescue Plan Act money to fund an expansion of the micropilot. County leaders have identified a multi-pronged approach that includes having an officer and crisis intervention specialist travel and respond together in teams that would each cover two police districts.

The $4 million ARPA-funded proposal would create four co-responder teams in the field and cover 26 positions — which would include 10 crisis intervention specialists, eight police officers, and other staff — as well as vehicles and other equipment.

While other mental health efforts help divert unnecessary arrests and jailing, the co-responder approach provides real-time 911 responses, May said. Diversion First leaders have pressed to eventually make the effort available around the clock.

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Stacy Langton (Photo via FCPS/YouTube)
Mother protests sexual content of book at Fairfax County School Board meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

Fairfax County Public Schools has pulled two books from its shelves after a local mom complained to the school board that the titles contain graphic sexual content and pedophelia.

A spokesperson for FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe have been temporarily pulled from shelves.

Two committees under the supervision of the school system’s library service coordinator will assess the suitability of both texts for high school libraries. The committee will include representation from staff, students, and parents, according to the spokesperson.

The recommendation of the committees will be put forward to the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services who will make a final decision as to whether FCPS continues to provide access to these books in our high school libraries,” the spokesperson said.

Stacy Langton, a Fairfax County mother, held up content from the books at a heated Sept. 23 school board meeting. The material — which was blurred in a recording of the meeting — included details of a man having sex with a boy, oral sex, masturbation, and nudity.

“Pornography is offensive to all people,” Langston said. The recording also muted Langton’s descriptions of the books’ content, which she said includes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy recounts sucking an adult man’s penis.

A Patch review of the two books disputed that characterization, reporting that “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age novel about a Mexican landscaper — contains no scenes of adults having sex with minors and that the illustration that drew objections in “Gender Queer,” an autobiography, appears in the context of the author’s teenage fantasy.

Another county resident and former FCPS teacher — Adrienne Henzel — said she was appalled by what she described as “homo-erotic material” supported by county taxpayer dollars.

FCPS Pride, an employees’ group that represents the LGBTQIA+ community and formed in 2015, said the inclusion of books that represent “oft-excluded communities such as LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized groups” help feel students more welcome and safer. LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning, and asexual.

“These books are ‘mirrors and windows’ as  they ‘tell a story’ to give a window on a community that a reader may not belong to, and they share a narrative with which a given student may identify,” said Robert Rigby, co-president of FCPS Pride and an FCPS high school teacher.

Rigby told FFXnow that FCPS Pride is thankful for librarians who have established catalogs and collections that include all communities — especially marginalized ones.

Langton’s comments drew several objections from Springfield District board member Laura Jane Cohen, who noted that there were children in the room and that the books are available only in high schools.

She was cut off when she went over the three-minute time limit for public comments and refused to leave the podium for the next speaker, prompting the school board to take a five-minute recess “to clear the room.”

The incident was picked up by several conservative-leaning national news outlets and flagged by Asra Nomani, vice president of strategy and investigations for Parents Defending Education, a recently formed nonprofit organization that fights what it calls “indoctrination” in education.

Langton said she was inspired to protest the distribution of the books after a similar discussion at a school board meeting in Texas.

But Rigby says the current “attacks” on literature with LGBTQIA+ and Latinx characters reflect a longstanding trend of protests against books that center marginalized individuals, including Black and Asian people, people with disabilities, and immigrants.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says her office has seen an increasing number of challenges to books focused on LGBTQIA+ characters and related themes based on the data it collects from censorship reports and media coverage.

Six of the top 10 most challenged books in 2018 and eight of the books on the 2019 list drew objections due to “LGBTQIA+ content,” though the 2020 list is dominated by texts that deal with racism and Black people’s experiences.

Protests of LGBTQIA-related material, which have targeted picture books like “And Tango Makes Three” as well as novels aimed at a more mature audience, often stem from a perception that it sexualizes children or is otherwise inappropriate, a stance that the ALA has “great difficulty with,” Caldwell says.

“There are families who have a desire and a need for this information,” she said. “There are young adults who have the ability to understand and want to read about other people’s lives, and they should be able to read this without another person’s values coming into play.”

The removal of “Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer” from Fairfax County high schools came just before the start of Banned Books Week, an annual initiative organized by the ALA and other literary and free speech organizations to advocate for open access to information and spotlight censorship issues.

This year’s event kicked off on Sunday (Sept. 26) and lasts through Saturday (Oct. 2).

While parents can guide what their own children read, those personal beliefs should not dictate whether students in general have access to specific books, says Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), another group involved with Banned Books Week.

“It is imperative that books be judged based on the stories they tell, the way they tell them and what they can share about the world, rather than on passages taken out of context of the full book,” Pelizzari said in a statement. “When selecting books for school libraries, librarians have a responsibility to ensure that diverse voices and stories are available to all students, perhaps particularly those who have traditionally struggled to find stories they feel represent their lives and experiences.”

Both the ALA and NCAC argue that books should remain on shelves whenever a school or library reviews them in response to a removal request. Taking them out of cirulation before a review is conducted “privileges the personal viewpoints and opinions of the challengers,” Pelizzari says.

“NCAC encourages districts to ensure that they have strong book review policies in place and to follow them closely when challenges do arise, to ensure that educational reasoning and not personal viewpoints guides the selection of school materials,” Pelizzari said.

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.

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Fairfax County Public School students get onto a bus (via FCPS)

Over a month into the current school year, Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with two key issues: how to recruit and retain staff, especially in special education and transportation, and how to feed students.

FCPS officials have said shortages in those areas are affecting the rest of the country, while supply chain issues have resulted in more students getting fewer choices to pick from in school cafeterias, thanks in part to free meals becoming available to all students.

When it comes to staff retention, the Fairfax County School Board approved some immediate relief at its regular meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23), increasing seasoned bus drivers’ salaries by 2.5%. The change will show up in their paychecks starting Oct. 23.

The change excludes new bus drivers who got a pay boost in August when the board voted to increase starting hourly rates from $19.58 to $22.91.

“Attract is one thing, but retain is something altogether different,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

In consultation with stakeholders, FCPS is conducting an in-depth market compensation study that it plans to finish by the end of the school year. The need to retain experienced bus drivers will only grow in urgency, as 25% will become eligible to retire.

FCPS also offers a $3,000 signing bonus, and Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the changes have boosted applications from about five to seven per week to an additional 20-50 each week.

Meanwhile, as of Sept. 15, FCPS had 133 teaching vacancies, nearly half of them in special education, according to Karen Corbett-Sanders, the school board’s Mount Vernon District representative.

Brabrand has suggested that state requirements for special education teachers need to be adjusted to ease the process for existing teachers, saying Thursday that he plans to bring the school board more information later to help its advocacy efforts.

School systems nationwide have reported bus driver deficits as potential hires turn to higher-paying commercial jobs, among other factors.

However, the commercial driving sector is experiencing labor shortages of its own, which are colliding with supply chain disruptions and increased student demand to create problems in school cafeterias.

In its annual “Opening of Schools” report, FCPS says it is now serving some 138,000 students per day — about 28,000 more than before the pandemic. Brabrand reported on Thursday that the school system distributed a record number of meals the previous week, when 150,000 students used its food services.

Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted that families have raised concerns and wondered about the quality of the food. Department of Financial Services Assistant Superintendent Leigh Burden said the issues have affected the number of the options available to students, but not the quality.

“We’ve had to double down on some of our oldies but goodies like pizza, which maybe doesn’t make students upset, but we want to continue to fully implement the food and nutrition health guidelines,” Brabrand said.

Anderson said knowing about the supply chain issues could help families better understand the situation that FCPS is facing.

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Lightning (via Breno Machado/Unsplash)

A transformer blowing out? A meteor? Or just really loud thunder?

A big boom was reported across a wide swath of Fairfax County from Reston and Herndon to McLean around 10:40 a.m. today, leaving many residents confused regarding the possible source.

Most residents have assumed that the sound was caused by loud thunder that accompanied a slow and steady rain in the region that’s expected to last most of the day.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department reported that it dispatched units to the 13000 block of Woodland Park Road in Reston at approximately 10:59 a.m. after a building there was struck by lightning, though it’s unclear if that was the source of the reported noise.

One McLean resident told FFXnow that she heard “a loud boom/explosion that did not sound like thunder” around about 10:35 a.m.

“We are on Brook Rd between Rt 7 and Old Dominion Dr.,” Diane Van Tuyl wrote. “My friend in Great Falls on Towlston Rd also heard it. She felt rumbling and some shaking.”

Other residents took to social media to share their bafflement regarding the possible source of the sound, which one user compared to a concussion grenade:

Last week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said a similar boom heard through the greater Shenandoah County region was a fireball

Photo via Breno Machado/Unsplash

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FCPS is ramping up efforts to provide on-site testing and prepare for vaccinations for elementary school-aged kids, including by enlisting a third party that hasn’t been publicly identified yet.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines for kids ages 5-11, Pfizer says its vaccine is safe for that age range, and it could obtain authorization in October.

That will open up vaccinations to an additional 87,693 FCPS students, according to Melanie Meren, who represents Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board.

As part of its preparations, FCPS is developing a survey for families to determine what their needs are and how it can best respond, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Michelle Boyd said at a school board meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23).

The survey will ask questions such as:

  • Whether parents would be okay with students getting vaccinated during the school day without their presence
  • Whether they would be interested in participating in clinics with their children
  • Whether they would prefer their primary medical provider to vaccinate students

Meren told FFXnow that the survey is a step in the right direction, but there needs to be more done.

During the meeting, she proposed that FCPS work with community partners, including public health officials and medical providers, to develop a plan for how to use different resources like bloodmobile services to deliver vaccinations.

Her motion calls for convening “community stakeholders to plan for mass distribution of children’s vaccines in Fairfax County, so that vaccines are accessible to families in accordance with families’ personal decisions about vaccinating children.”

Meren noted that pediatricians’ offices are already overwhelmed, and she wants FCPS to look at ways to be best prepared, noting that schools have had to take on an unprecedented public health role.

“The school division is being tasked with really stepping up in ways that have never been seen before in terms of public health,” Meren said at the school board meeting.

Meren also proposed that the school board direct Brabrand to create a Department of Special Services staff position to help the assistant superintendent manage public health-related work in FCPS.

Since both items were introduced as new business, meaning that they weren’t up for discussion or action, the school board will address them at its next regular meeting on Oct. 7.

At the same time, FCPS is continuing to tackle issues related to its existing COVID-19 health procedures, primarily when it comes to disruptions to in-person learning.

“We’ve already got some kids entering their second quarantine,” FCPS Superintendent Brabrand said during the school board meeting. “28 days without a teacher or instruction is not something we can do.”

Out of roughly 178,000 students, FCPS has recorded 818 positive COVID-19 cases in August and September as of yesterday (Sunday).

However, as of Sept. 15, around 2,900 students have had to stay home due to potentially coming into contact with people who have contracted COVID-19, according to FCPS.

While noting that student transmission of the virus is low, Brabrand reiterated at the school board meeting that FCPS is continuing to look at ways to improve its COVID-19 communication policies and procedures.

Braddock District School Board Representative Megan McLaughlin said she wants FCPS to show it’s serious about helping minimize the time that students are not in school, noting that Loudoun County Public Schools has reduced its mandated quarantine period from 14 to 10 days.

Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu recommended 14 days at a Board of Supervisors committee meeting last Tuesday (Sept. 21), stating that the 10-day alternative allowed by the CDC carries an estimated 10% increase in the risk of post-quarantine transmission.

Starting this week, FCPS is offering an online platform where students who have to be paused, quarantined, or isolated due to a COVID-19 infection or exposure can live-stream in-person classes.

However, FCPS has otherwise declined to expand its virtual options, despite requests from many community members, including several speakers who delivered remarks during the community participation portion of Thursday’s board meeting.

“We simply don’t have the staff,” Brabrand said. “We don’t even have the staff right now to operate full in person. We’re strained to provide staffing for the limited virtual that we have, per CDC guidelines for students with diagnosed medical and health needs.”

He added that the area school systems like Prince George’s and Arlington counties that have offered broader virtual programs have significant wait lists or are filling up to 40 to 50% of their staff positions with substitute teachers.

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An illustration of a coronavirus (via CDC/Unsplash)

After seeing COVID-19 cases climb throughout August, Fairfax County seems to be finishing September at a plateau in the Delta variant-driven surge that has refilled hospitals in many parts of the country.

The Fairfax Health District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, added 160 new cases today (Monday), bringing its total for the pandemic up to 88,817 cases, according to the Fairfax County Health Department.

The novel coronavirus has now contributed to 4,283 hospitalizations and 1,178 deaths, including five in the past week.

While community transmission is still considered high, the county is currently averaging 187.3 cases per day for the past seven days. That remains on par with the case rate in mid-April, right before vaccinations became available to all adults and stifled the virus until the Delta variant’s arrival, but the weekly average has only exceeded 200 cases for exactly one day — Sept. 16 — since late February.

Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days as of Sept. 27, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)
All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 27, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)

The recent stabilization of COVID-19 cases coincides with preparations for the biggest shift in Fairfax County and Virginia’s vaccination campaigns since adolescents became eligible for the vaccine in May.

Backing an authorization issued by the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday (Sept. 22), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed a recommendation by its advisory committee on Friday (Sept. 24) that booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine be made available to certain populations.

The CDC’s new guidelines state that adults 65 and older, individuals 18 and older in long-term care settings, and people aged 50-64 years old with underlying medical conditions should get a third dose of Pfizer’s vaccine at least six months after they received the first two required doses.

Booster shots can also go to people 18 and older who are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to underlying medical conditions or their occupation, including:

  • First responders
  • School staff
  • Public transit workers
  • Food and agriculture workers
  • Grocery store workers
  • Manufacturing workers
  • Corrections workers
  • U.S. Postal Service workers

These categories generally align with the populations who were prioritized for the initial vaccine rollout.

The CDC says the vaccine remains effective at preventing severe illness due to the coronavirus, but recent data suggests the amount of protection it provides against infection and mild illness decreases over time. Preliminary research indicates that booster shots can increase recipients’ immune response.

State vaccination coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said in a statement that Virginia welcomes the CDC’s support for booster shots, which were only available to immunocompromised people before.

“The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has been working with its vaccination partners — pharmacies, healthcare providers, hospitals and other institutions — to prepare for this rollout,” Avula said. “We are confident that we will have enough supply, and that access will be widely available.”

VDH officials confirmed last week that the state is exploring a variety of strategies for delivering booster shots, including potentially reviving the mass vaccination site at Tysons Corner Center that delivered more than 50,000 doses in the spring.

The Fairfax County Health Department said on Friday that booster doses will soon be available for those who are eligible at pharmacies, medical providers, hospitals, and county sites, but it is still “waiting on specific federal and state implementation guidance prior to offering booster doses to residents.”

The county’s Vaccine Administration Management System now allows Fairfax Health District residents to find and schedule an additional dose as well as their first and second doses.

VDH notes that its top priority continues to be getting the vaccine to people who haven’t gotten any doses yet, since data shows that unvaccinated people are significantly more likely to contract COVID-19 and develop severe illness as a result, leading to possible hospitalization and death.

As of today, 814,362 Fairfax Health District residents have gotten at least one vaccine dose. That is 68.8% of the total population, including 81.3% of people 18 and older and 83.9% of adolescents aged 12 to 17.

740,341 residents — 74.3% of adults and 62.6% of the overall population — are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve gotten two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Virginia and Fairfax County have not yet started reporting data on how many people have received a booster shot.

Photo via CDC/Unsplash

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A new rebate program that starts next year would give thousands of dollars to Virginians who buy or lease an electric vehicle.

But it’s not funded.

Fairfax County officials said the Virginia House of Delegates sought to put $5 million into the program, which awards $2,500 rebates and more, but that money wasn’t included in the General Assembly’s budget.

“Until the General Assembly funds the rebates, there won’t be any rebates,” said Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy.

Her department is tasked with establishing a website to administer the program that includes weekly updates about the availability of funds.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam approved HB 1979 — the bill that created the program — on March 31, and it went into effect July 1. It stated that the rebates depend upon available funds.

The rebates would cover vehicles that must use electricity as their only source of power. They’d cover two categories:

  • new and leased vehicles that have a base price of $55,000 or less
  • used vehicles that cost $25,000 or less

Introduced by Loudoun County Del. David A. Reid, the legislation was intended to encourage greater adoption of electric vehicles in the Commonwealth. About 7% of U.S. adults have an electric or a hybrid vehicle, an adoption rate that lags behind China and Europe, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ legislative committee, which tracks state bills and determines the county’s policy positions and priorities, discussed the matter during a meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 21).

Board Chairman Jeff McKay, who serves as vice chair of the committee, suggested that the state should also modify a second rebate that was included in the bill.

Under the law, an additional rebate of $2,000 could be used for people whose household income is 300% or less of the federal poverty level, which currently equates to $38,640 for a single adult or $65,880 for a family of three.

McKay said that threshold would shut out many people in Fairfax County, even though they would be more likely to buy an electric vehicle than residents of some other parts of the state.

“This is really important from an equity standpoint,” McKay said. “Those can be affordable vehicles with these [types] of rebate programs.”

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Fairfax County Public Schools has asked a federal appeals court to postpone an ordered retrial of a former Oakton High School student’s sexual assault lawsuit, setting up a possible escalation of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school system plans to file a petition for a writ of certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court take up the case, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit legal organization that represents the student, who has only been identified as Jane Doe.

Public Justice told FFXnow that it learned about those intentions Monday morning (Sept. 20), though it’s still holding out hope that the Fairfax County School Board will opt not to file the petition.

The law firm warns that, if FCPS files a petition and the appeal is accepted, it could set the stage for a reevaluation of Title IX protections against gender discrimination, which have traditionally been used to address school-based sexual violence, by the same court that allowed Texas to essentially ban abortions earlier this month.

“Fairfax would be asking them to severely undermine students’ civil rights,” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky, the plaintiff’s counsel, said. “I think there’s a real question for Fairfax families whether they want the legacy of Fairfax schools to be undermining equality and safety for students.”

Filed in May 2018, the lawsuit argues that FCPS violated Doe’s Title IX rights by failing to ensure her safety and provide support after she reported that an older, male student sexually assaulted her when they were on a bus during the five-day school band trip.

The school board’s Sept. 9 regular meeting agenda includes a closed session to consult with legal counsel about the case, known as “Jane Doe v. Fairfax County School Board et al.”

FCPS confirmed that it has requested the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to stay its June 16 ruling ordering a new trial in Doe’s lawsuit over school officials’ response to her report of being sexually assaulted by a fellow student during a band trip in 2017.

With one judge dissenting, the three-person panel reversed a U.S. District Court jury’s verdict in favor of FCPS, arguing that the lower court had failed to accurately define for the jury the legal standard to determine if the school system had “actual knowledge” of the reported assault.

“As the divergent opinions of the Fourth Circuit show, the issues in this case could have nationwide and potentially far-reaching implications,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement. “For that reason, we have asked the court to stay or suspend the effective date of its ruling, pending further review.”

FCPS said it had no further comment at this time, including on whether it plans to petition the Supreme Court.

According to Doe’s original complaint, school officials ignored multiple reports from other students about her assault, never offered medical attention or counseling, discouraged her from reporting the incident to police, and imposed no consequences on her assailant, who continued attending their shared band class.

The district court jury in Alexandria affirmed in August 2019 that Doe had been sexually assaulted and deprived of educational opportunities as a result, but they found FCPS couldn’t be held liable for its response because they didn’t have evidence that officials knew for a fact that the assault had occurred.

Jurors’ reported confusion over whether reporting sexual harassment can be considered giving school officials actual notice or knowledge of an assault formed the basis of Doe’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit, which held oral arguments in January before ruling that the jury had used the incorrect legal standard.

FCPS later requested a rehearing en banc, which would bring the case in front of the full appeals court. The 15 appellate judges denied the petition 9-6 on Aug. 30, a close decision that inspired two judges to release dissenting opinions — a rare move, according to the Associated Press.

According to Brodsky, FCPS currently has 90 days from the date of the rehearing denial to file an appeal to the Supreme Court, but that would change if the stay of the new trial is granted.

“The next step should be to take this case back to trial and for a jury to hear our client’s story and have the opportunity for the first time to rule on it under the correct legal standard,” Brodsky said, adding that Public Justice is “confident that that’s where this case is headed” after the rehearing petition was denied.

Brodsky says she’s less surprised by FCPS seeking a delay than by the argument it’s using to do so.

As stated in the majority opinion written by Judge James Wynn, the school board’s rehearing petition included a new argument that “Title IX does not make clear that schools may be held liable for their response to a single instance of sexual harassment, no matter how egregious.”

In other words, schools can’t be held legally responsible for reported sexual harassment under Title IX if it doesn’t recur, since they couldn’t have prevented the initial incident.

While the position found support among the dissenting judges, who expressed concern that “retroactively” imposing liability could open schools to “a deluge” of lawsuits, Wynn rejected it as a “strawman” that would amount to giving schools a “free rape.”

He stated in his opinion that Doe’s lawsuit seeks to hold FCPS liable for its response to her assault, not for the assailant’s actions. He also noted that the stance is “at odds” with the case that the school board presented during oral arguments.

“When a student’s education is disrupted because of their school’s failure to address sexual assault, that’s enough to state a Title IX claim. That’s what the Fourth Circuit said,” Brodsky said. “That’s what the majority of appellate courts across the country have said, and if the Supreme Court were to adopt the alternative rule, that would really give schools an excuse to withhold the support that students need in the wake of violence.”

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McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on their first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is revising a number of procedures around COVID-19 contact tracing, quarantining, and pausing, even as it maintains that case numbers remain proportionally very low in schools.

School officials are actively exploring their options for expanding student vaccination requirements, including a possible mandate once the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorize it for kids 5 and older, which could happen as early as the end of October.

However, FCPS would have to wait for the Virginia General Assembly to act before it can require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students under state law, which gives authority for determining mandatory school immunizations to the legislature and a state health regulatory board.

“If I had [the power to do this], I’d recommend right now to this board mandatory vaccinations for our students upon full authorization from the FDA,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said at a school board work session yesterday (Tuesday). “If we have the burden of educating kids, it should be determined by officials closest to schools who should be vaccinated and not vaccinated and not wait for the state to give us permission to do so.”

At the moment, officials said they are in talks with legal counsel about expanding the existing vaccine mandate for high school student athletes to other secondary school extracurricular activities, such as theater programs.

According to Brabrand’s presentation to the school board, 0.33% of staff, students, and visitors — 677 individuals in total — reported testing positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 15. Only 24 cases involved transmission within one of the 198 schools and offices in the county, Brabrand said.

Since Aug. 1, 936 cases have been reported to FCPS, according to the school system’s case dashboard. Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu told the Board of Supervisors at a health and human services committee meeting yesterday that the county is seeing 30 to 40 cases among students per day on average, with some days going as high as 50 cases.

While Addo-Ayensu also said the majority of transmission has occurred in the general community, not in schools, each case has a ripple effect as additional staff and students who might have been exposed to the virus have been subjected to isolation, quarantine, or in-person learning pauses.

Between Aug. 13 and Sept. 15, 2,905 students — or 1.6% of the student body — have been paused, meaning they were COVID positive or a potential close contact and had to remain out of school during contact-tracing investigations. Nearly half were elementary school students.

1.8% of staff, or 502 individuals, have been paused as well during that time period.

“We know the impact of the pause…is significant,” Brabrand said. “We are working with health partners and the Fairfax County Health Department to minimize the length of time that students are out, while maintaining a safe environment.”

In addition, the time it takes to complete contact tracing and “close” a case has increased significantly over the last month as more cases have come in, keeping more students out of school longer.

In mid-August, most cases were closed within four days with an average of 2.5 days. Now, in mid-September, the average duration has jumped to nearly 10 days, with 78 cases taking 12 days or longer, according to data provided by FCPS.

To speed up the process, FCPS has instituted several measures, including hiring individuals to help with COVID management and implementing a vaccination verification survey intended to let students who are both asymptomatic and vaccinated return to classes sooner.

Schools no longer need to provide seating charts and other information to the county health department, which has also started notifying families about pauses via both email and phone after communication issues led some students to break COVID-19 protocols.

FCPS officials also confirmed that they’re developing new methods to support students when they are being paused, including one-on-one check-ins every 48 hours and live streaming lessons.

A number of school board members raised concerns about the extra work this will create for staff and teachers on top of the other challenges that have emerged with the resumption of five days of in-person  learning.

Brabrand responded that these processes should hopefully be only temporary as school and health staff work to shorten the length of contact-tracing investigations.

“If we are in the situation we are [currently] in at the end of the calendar year, then we will need to revisit our assumptions about how we are operating as a school district,” he said when asked about calls for more virtual learning. “We are back in-person and we are doing all we can to stay, but we need to see about the results over the last few months to inform additional General Assembly action.”

In terms of vaccination rates, 87% of staff responded a survey from FCPS about their vaccination status. 96.8% of respondents said they are vaccinated.

FCPS is requiring all employees to get vaccinated by late October.

About 83.5% of residents 12 to 17 years old have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to health department data, but FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that it doesn’t currently have statistics specifically for its students.

FCPS didn’t immediately respond when asked if it plans to survey parents and students like it did for staff.

“Education as we know it will forever change if we can’t get our kids and staff vaccinated,” Brabrand said at the work session.”I strongly believe that vaccination is going to be the way out of this pandemic.”

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The Fairfax County School Board discusses a first-year interim report of a two-year review of the district’s special education program (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is conducting the first public review of its special education services since 2013 after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional learning with remote classes that disproportionately affected students with disabilities.

Presented to the school board at a work session yesterday (Tuesday), findings from the first year of the review highlight families’ frustrations with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and suggest the school system disproportionately disciplines special education students, especially Black and Hispanic children.

Requested by the school board in December 2019 and officially launched on Nov. 10, 2020, the interim report states explicitly that the review “does not address special education programming during COVID-19.”

The contracted firm — the Arlington-headquartered nonprofit American Institutes for Research — said FCPS decided to focus on collecting data for normal school operations.

On the positive side, surveys of both staff and parents found that 87% of the over 18,500 parents who responded “agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school,” frequently noting the caring nature of instructional staff and expressing appreciation for employees.

The review showed that, from 2016-2021, FCPS had about nine or 10 students per special education teacher, a lower ratio than the state average of 15-to-1. The district has also taken steps to improve communication with school staff, including by appointing an assistant ombudsman for special education in 2019, the report said.

While researchers stressed that this is an initial update and the conclusions aren’t final, the report found several areas of concern:

  • Families voiced a lack of transparency and accountability about Individualized Education Program goals and progress
  • Suspension and expulsion rates were higher for certain races than others
  • Parents suggested that the IEP process for getting student input on post-high school transition plans “may be driven by compliance rather than student needs”
  • Novice teachers lack preparation to work with students with disabilities, an area that researchers are investigating further
  • Staff reported feeling overwhelmed by case management, paperwork, and meeting duties, affecting FCPS’ ability to effectively recruit and retain teachers
  • The amount and quality of communication between parents and staff varies by school
  • A sampling showed more than a third of IEPs had no written evidence of parent input

“‘It’s so sad.’ That’s what I wrote all over this document,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

An interim report for a special education review compared suspension rates for students with disabilities and other students (via American Institutes of Research/FCPS)

In addition to discussing how to address the issues raised by the report, school board member after school board member raised concerns about the review process, urging researchers to be specific in their recommendations by looking at subgroups and other factors. Officials suggested broad takeaways could dilute matters and not help families.

“My fear overall about this is that this is a one-sized-fits-all special ed audit,” Laura Jane Cohen, the board’s Springfield District representative, said.

Researchers responded that they used a random sampling to collect their preliminary findings. They also noted constraints with interviewing kids, while expressing a willingness to consider changes.

The firm said it will go more in-depth during the second year of a $375,000-plus contract issued in October 2020.

FCPS Auditor General Esther Ko reminded the board that it has a fixed contract and the firm will work at no cost for three more months after its second year. If the board wants more changes, though, it could amend the contract or open another bidding process to look at other topics.

The board requested that Ko to evaluate possible changes to the review with American Institutes for Research for its audit committee to go over later.

Currently set to be completed next summer, the review will make recommendations to FCPS for how to improve services for students with disabilities and their families.

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A Food Lion in Herndon (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County’s new plastic bag tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, drew both support and opposition from the supermarket industry.

Food Lion and MOM’s Organic Market took opposite stances on the issue before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change last Tuesday (Sept. 14), imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided at grocery stores, convenient stores, and drug stores.

“While Food Lion strongly supports responsible stewardship and waste reduction efforts, complying with a patchwork of varying local single-use bag restrictions in the Commonwealth negatively impacts Food Lion’s ability to serve our customers and implement uniform brand strategies for waste reduction and recycling,” the company said in a letter shared by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only board member who voted against the measure.

Headquartered in Salisbury, N.C., Food Lion has one store in Fairfax County, located in a shopping center in Herndon.

The company’s director of operations, Eric Sword, said in the emailed statement to the county that the business recycled 6,914 tons of plastic in 2020, among other recycling efforts, and it’s working to meet a parent company goal to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

“Food Lion is supportive of broad-based efforts to reduce customer usage of both paper and plastic bags, and the brand continuously works to raise customer awareness of the value of using reusable bags,” the letter said.

However, Sword wrote that he believes the change will shift consumer behavior almost entirely to paper bags, even though the company seeks to encourage reusable bags for customers.

Meanwhile, a MOM’s representative noted during the Sept. 14 public hearing that their business voluntarily banned plastic bags over a decade ago and uses paper and compostable bags.

“We banned plastic bags 15 years ago because it was the right thing to do for the environment and the communities we call home,” Alexandra DySard, the company’s environment and partnership manager, said in video testimony.

The Rockville, Maryland-based supermarket, which has stores in Herndon and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, favors alternatives to a plastic bag that many people might only use for 12 minutes, DySard said.

“Plastic manufacturers are misleading consumers to believe that bags are being upcycled into benches and decks when the truth is the majority of plastic bags are being sent to landfills, incinerators, ending up in our waterways, or being shipped out of sight to third-world countries,” DySard said.

She also noted that D.C. saw a 72% reduction in plastic bags found in streams after its ban took effect in 2010.

FFXnow contacted other grocery chains in the area for comment, including Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter, but did not receive responses by press time.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the new tax 9-1, as advocates likened it to a fee that people can avoid and expressed hope that the move will encourage consumers’ environmental stewardship.

“Plastic bag taxes are proven in jurisdictions across the nation,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the measure. “This measure will reduce plastic pollution and the modest funds collected will be reinvested into litter prevention and to providing reusable bags for low-income community members.”

Herrity dissented, saying in newsletters sent to constituents before and after the vote that now is not the time to add another tax.

“Instead of instituting a rigorous education campaign — one that encompasses how to recycle and dispose of multiple forms of trash — the Board is taxing residents into compliance,” Herrity said, suggesting the county needs to “create more ways for people to recycle and more materials to educate them on how they can” do so.

The county hasn’t allocated the future tax revenue to a specific purpose yet, but state law permits it to be used for pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs about reducing waste, and reusable bags for residents who receive federal food assistance benefits.

The tax doesn’t apply to:

  • multiple bags sold in packages, such as those for garbage, leaves or pet waste
  • plastic bags used solely for certain food products such as ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items
  • plastic bags with handles designed for multiple reuse
  • plastic bags for dry cleaning or prescription drugs

With the board’s vote last week, Fairfax County was the first Northern Virginia locality to institute a plastic bag tax, but neighboring Arlington County and the City of Alexandria quickly followed suit, adopting their own ordinances on Saturday (Sept. 18).

Photo via Google Maps

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More than four-fifths of adults in the Fairfax Health District have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, a hard-won milestone achieved after a summer of slowing demand and the arrival of the contagious Delta variant.

According to its vaccine data dashboard, which also includes information from the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, the Fairfax County Health Department has now administered more than 1.5 million vaccine doses since it received its first shipment on Dec. 23, 2020.

Constituting 68.6% of the total population, 811,460 Fairfax Health District residents, including 81.1% of all people 18 and older, have received at least one vaccine dose.

Interest in getting vaccinated appears to have soared in the past week, as more than 18,000 of those first dose were administered since last Monday (Sept. 13), when the county health department reported that 793,392 residents had received at least one shot. In comparison, just 1,457 first-dose recipients were added between Sept. 7 and 13.

The journey to the 80% benchmark was a two-month grind after the Fairfax Health District surpassed the 70% mark in June — more than 10 days ahead of the July 4 date that federal and state officials had targeted for getting vaccine doses to adults.

The milestone comes as the late summer surge fueled by the Delta variant appears to be leveling off, though Fairfax County’s COVID-19 community transmission levels are still considered high based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s established metrics.

With another 151 cases reported today (Monday), the Fairfax Health District has recorded a total of 87,621 novel coronavirus infections, which have resulted in 4,266 hospitalizations and 1,173 deaths.

Fairfax County is averaging 80.3 cases per day for the past week after spiking at an average of 204.6 cases over the previous seven days on Thursday (Sept. 16), which was the first time that the weekly average had climbed over 200 since it sat at 204.7 cases on Feb. 27.

Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days as of Sept. 20, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)
All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 20, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)

Still, VDH data suggests the county is no longer seeing the clear, steep increase in COVID-19 cases that emerged in August. That trend of a sharp rise in cases, followed by a sudden plateau reflects the trajectory that the Delta variant has taken in other countries like India and the U.K.

However, health experts say vaccinations and mitigation measures, like mask-wearing, remain crucial to curtailing the spread of the virus, particularly with schools in session, the weather cooling, and the holiday season approaching.

In the Fairfax Health District, 736,927 residents — 74% of adults and 62.3% of the overall population — have been fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson inoculation.

Determining who is considered fully vaccinated could soon become more complicated after Food and Drug Administration advisors voted on Friday (Sept. 17) to recommend booster shots for people who are 65 and older or face high risk of severe illness, though the committee did not support broader approval.

The Virginia Department of Health said in a statement that booster shots won’t be available until the FDA updates its authorization and the CDC issues new guidance, which could come later this week.

“VDH will continue its planning efforts with pharmacies, providers, hospitals and other partners as well as efforts to establish other vaccination sites to ensure that once the CDC issues guidance, eligible Virginians will be able to access a booster dose,” state vaccination coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said.

The Fairfax County Health Department says it is awaiting further federal and state guidance on booster shots and will continue limiting third doses of the Pfizer vaccine to immunocompromised people for now.

In the meantime, the county is also preparing for another game-changing development: the availability of vaccinations for children.

Pfizer reported this morning that initial results from clinical trials suggest its vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. While emergency authorization for that age group isn’t expected to come until later this fall, Fairfax County Public Schools already has plans to work with a third-party company that will help administer the shots to kids once they’re eligible.

The county health department says it is working with the school system and medical providers to prepare to expand vaccinations to children.

“We are in close communication with schools, daycares, and pre-schools — as well as our private medical providers — across Fairfax County about COVID planning and are actively working to prepare and develop options for vaccinating younger children when the vaccine becomes authorized for the 5-11 age group,” FCHD spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in a statement.

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A solar energy-powered lamp post (via Sandra Parra/Unsplash)

Fairfax County has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and now, it has a plan to achieve that goal.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted the county’s first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) when it met on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

First proposed by the board’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council in 2018, the plan features an inventory of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and recommendations for how to curb them so the community can realize its aspirations of carbon neutrality.

“Together, the strategies and actions are intended to power individuals and organizations within the community, to engage in, lead, and champion the emissions reduction needed to achieve county-wide carbon neutrality,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said, reading from the board matter he issued. “Climate change is a major existential crisis already causing major impacts in Fairfax County.”

The final report calls on both the county and its citizens to take far-reaching, significant actions.

Proposals include cutting the use of fossil fuel-burning cars, installing solar panels at home, creating more through recycling and composting programs, adopting more stringent green-building policies, and being a “conscious consumer.”

Storck’s motion passed 9-0, with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity not present during the vote.

A few moments before the vote, Herrity said he was going to abstain due to concerns over timing, lack of proper community engagement, and cost, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The economic outlook over the next few years is uncertain,” Herrity said. “Our decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. This plan will have planned and unintended impacts on the economy and taxpayers. Beyond what I’m imagining will be a very steep cost to implement this plan, it will also have a very serious impact on the affordability of homes, increasing the actual cost as well as permitting and regulatory costs.”

The rest of the board countered that the county can’t afford to wait any longer to address the already-existing threat of climate change.

“The cost of doing nothing is significant, if not life-threatening,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “And I think most responsible people who are paying attention to the subject and the science…most certainly get that.”

Storck, who helped spearhead the CECAP as chair of the board’s environmental committee, reiterated that county operations and schools only account for about 5% of Fairfax County’s carbon emissions. The remaining 95% of emissions come from the private sector and the general community.

As noted in a presentation that Storck delivered, transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption are the two largest sources of greenhouse emissions. Combined, those areas produce more than 90% of all emissions in the county.

As a result, while the county will have a leadership role, this new plan is about asking the community to take the necessary steps to curb emissions, Storck said.

“There will be no area, sector, or part of our society that won’t be impacted [by the reduction goals in this plan],” he said. “How much? That’s largely a function of how aggressively we move forward.”

As the county worked to finalize the CECAP over the summer, the United Nations released a sobering report last month that said, even if future emissions are lowered, global temperatures will continue to rise until at least the middle of the 21st century, leading to more extreme weather and other worsening climate issues.

County staff told the board’s environmental committee in July that the CECAP’s implementation was already underway, a process that includes community outreach, public education, and an exhaustive review of existing county policies to see how they line up with the now-accepted plan.

Additional plans related to the initiative’s implementation, such as how the county can build on existing programs, will be presented to the board at an environmental committee meeting in early 2022.

Photo via Sandra Parra/Unsplash

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It took approximately half an hour for the police motorcade escorting the body of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss to travel the 20-mile stretch of I-66 from Gainesville to the I-495 interchange in Merrifield.

Along the way, the procession encountered dozens of Fairfax County police officers, firefighters, and residents who gathered on and under overpasses yesterday (Friday) afternoon to honor Knauss, one of 13 American servicemembers killed in the Aug. 26 bombing at Kabul’s airport during the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, the 23-year-old Knauss grew up in Corryton, Tennessee, a village about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville, and joined the Army right out of high school. He was on his second deployment to Afghanistan after previously serving there for nine months, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Killing at least 170 Afghan civilians, the attack on Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport occurred in the midst of a frenzied effort to evacuate thousands of people seeking to leave the country ahead of the U.S. military’s Aug. 30 departure deadline as the Taliban took control.

The Fairfax County Police Department announced Thursday morning that a funeral procession for Knauss would pass through the county after 3 p.m., advising community members to go to an overpass along the route from I-66 East to I-495 South if they wanted to pay their respects.

Accompanied by several police cruisers and motorcycles, the hearse entered from Prince William County around 3:20 p.m. and traveled east through Fairfax before turning south in the Merrifield area. Upon reaching Springfield, the procession took I-395 North on its way to Arlington National Cemetery.

The motorcade was expected to be overseen by a pair of helicopters, but they were apparently shelved as a late afternoon downpour significantly reduced visibility.

About a dozen people from different backgrounds assembled along the Gallows Road overpass by the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station, undeterred by the rain that drenched the area around 3:45 p.m., just as the motorcade passed.

For Oakton resident Dennis Greza, the decision to watch the procession came from a personal place, spurred by seeing his brother serve in the Air Force. He said he wanted to pay respect to Knauss for making the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The service members killed in the Kabul airport bombing included 11 Marines and one member of the Navy, along with Knauss as the only Army casualty.

Elsewhere along I-66, Fairfax County police officers stood at attention, and American flags hoisted by fire engines greeted the funeral procession.

In a news release sent out at 4:16 p.m., Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner announced that they will cosponsor a bipartisan bill to award all 13 servicemembers a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the legislature.

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the 13 servicemembers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the last days of the war in Afghanistan,” Warner and Kaine said in a joint statement. “We must never forget their bravery. Honoring them with the Congressional Gold Medal is one way to remember their heroic service to our nation.”

Jay Westcott contributed to this report.

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