Morning Notes

A sign explaining the playground rules at Lake Anne School (via vantagehill/Flickr)

Amazon Partners with Metro on Affordable Housing — Amazon will devote $125 million to fund the construction of 1,000 new affordable housing units on land owned by Metro or near Metro stations. The initiative is intended to help bring more low and middle-income residents closer to public transit and job centers, but it will be up to developers to apply for the funds. [The Washington Post]

County Brings COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic to Reston — The North County Governmental Center (1801 Cameron Glen Dr.) will host a COVID-19 vaccine clinic today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be provided, which has been authorized for adults 18 and older, and walk-in appointments are available. [Hunter Mill District News]

Georgetown Pike Bridge Closes Tomorrow — Georgetown Pike over Difficult Run will be closed to traffic between Old Dominion Drive and Towlston Road in Great Falls from 8 p.m. Friday (June 18) to 4 a.m. on Monday (June 21). The closure will enable crews to make bridge repairs, which will involve some overnight noise from concrete demolition and other construction activities. [VDOT]

Reston Association Yard Sale Returns — The 80 Family community yard sale is coming back on Saturday (June 19) after missing last year due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon in the RA parking lot (12001 Sunrise Valley Dr.), the event will include a Kona Ice truck selling shaved ice and a Purple Heart collection truck that will accept donations of unsold items. [Patch]

Reston Software Company Launches Second Year of Scholarship Program — The Ellucian Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the recently acquired company Ellucian, will accept applications for its PATH Scholarship Program until July 14. The program gives higher education institutions block grants of up to $25,000 “to support students facing economic hardship and educational disruptions.” [Ellucian]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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Morning Notes

COVID-19 Capacity Limits End in Virginia — Virginia officially lifted all capacity and social distancing requirements instituted for COVID-19 on Friday (May 28). Masks are still required in some settings, including in schools and on public transit, and the Virginia Department of Health says people who are not fully vaccinated should still wear a face covering and practice social distancing in public settings. [Fairfax County Health Department]

Police Investigate Fatal Great Falls Car Crash — “Around 10:53 p.m., Salavdro Alvarez Perez of Maryland, 24, was driving alone and heading east on Georgetown Pike when his 2021 Toyota Corrolla left the road, hit a fence and mailbox, then flipped over, according to police. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Detectives from the Crash Reconstruction Unit believe alcohol may have contributed to the crash and are investigating whether speed was also a factor.” [Patch]

Amanda Drive in Great Falls Reopens Tomorrow — “On or about Wednesday, June 2, 2021, drivers will experience traffic pattern changes on side streets between Utterback Store Road and Riva Ridge Drive as Amanda Drive reopens to traffic at Route 7. All residences, businesses and other public facilities will remain accessible…As a reminder, the Route 7 speed limit has been reduced to 45 miles per hour in active work zones between Reston Avenue and Jarrett Valley Drive.” [VDOT]

The Water Mine Opens After Weather-Related DelayThe Water Mine in Reston officially kicked off the summer 2021 season on Memorial Day (May 31), but the opening was delayed until noon due to “low temperatures.” The water park will be open on the weekends until June 12, when operating hours expand to seven days a week. [Fairfax County Park Authority]

Extent of In-Person Learning Varies Across D.C. Region — About 60% of the roughly 700,000 students in the D.C. area have been learning entirely online since March 2020. The number of students who have received some in-person instruction over the past year ranges from nearly 60% in Arlington and about half of all students in Fairfax County to just 28% in D.C. and Prince George’s County. [The Washington Post]

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After months of virtual classes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a consensus emerged in Fairfax County that in-person learning is the ideal approach for students, but for the thousands of students who attend Stride Inc.‘s kindergarten-to-12th-grade schools, online classes are the norm, rather than the exception.

Stride says it has provided virtual learning to more than 2 million people since launching as K12 Inc. in 2000, but last Tuesday (May 18) represented a first for the Herndon-based company, as a dozen students and their families gathered at its corporate headquarters for the first-ever K12 National Spelling Bee.

“Spelling bees are a rite of passage for students everywhere, but it’s never been done online at this scale,” Stride CEO James Rhyu said in a statement.

The competition featured 12 students from nine states, including Virginia, who advanced to the finals after winning contests within their schools and regions. There were four finalists each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, all of them from Stride’s online public school program.

Stride schools regularly offer activities and events for students to interact with classmates in person, including student clubs, field trips, and extracurricular activities, but the spelling bee championship gave students a chance to meet peers from around the country, Director of Corporate Communications Emily Riordan says.

“We are always looking for new ways to provide students with experiences that further enrich their academic pursuits, to give them space to demonstrate what they know, and to connect with each other,” she told Reston Now. “…The National Spelling Bee is one way we’re bringing together students from different schools, but who share the experience of attending public school online.”

Students at the event were required to wear face masks for its entirety, and they completed health screenings prior to arriving, according to a press release from Stride.

However, some students still attended virtually instead of traveling to Herndon, including Washington Virtual Academy (WAVA) third grader Ilyannie Gonzalez, who participated remotely from the other side of the country.

Ilyannie ultimately won the elementary school-level championship, beating out three other students who were attending in person after 18 rounds.

“Competing in the Spelling Bee is a dream come true for me,” she said before the competition started. “I love the challenge, and I am able to expand my vocabulary by learning words that are new to me. Most importantly, I would be making my family and my WAVA community proud.”

Like many other online education providers, Stride reported an increased demand for its services during the pandemic.

In an earnings presentation for the third-quarter of fiscal year 2021 on April 20, the company said that its enrollment had gone up from 122,100 students on March 31, 2020 to 185,300 students one year later, including 155,800 general education students.

In addition to hiring more than 1,300 teachers for the 2020-2021 school year, Stride rebranded in November to reflect its efforts to branch out into adult education and acquired two businesses with the goal of expanding its technology and healthcare career training offerings.

The past year hasn’t been entirely positive for Stride. According to NPR, the company was fired by Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida after technical issues led to a disastrous launch of the district’s virtual learning platform, and online charter schools in general have drawn criticism for students’ performance and a for-profit business model funded by taxpayer money, rather than tuition.

Still, Stride believes the past year has shown that virtual schools can be viable option for students looking for more flexibility than traditional public schools, and the National Spelling Bee suggests social interactions don’t have to be sacrificed in the process.

“Unlike a lot of their brick-and-mortar peers this past year, learning in an online setting is not new for these students, and neither is the opportunity to connect with their classmates and show off what they’ve learned to family and friends,” Rhyu said. “We’re proud of each of the Spelling Bee finalists, and we’re excited to celebrate with them here in Herndon.”

Photo courtesy Emily Riordan/Stride Inc.

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After getting into a new groove of providing four days of in-person learning, Fairfax County Public Schools has officially announced its plans for the fall.

The school system will offer all students five days of in-person learning in the fall and a limited virtual program for students with documented health needs.

Roughly 109,000 students and staff have returned to school buildings this school year. According to the school division, nearly 85,400 students attend in-person instruction, and more than 80% of those go at least four days a week.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 transmission rates remain less than 1% — even after schools reduced social distancing to three feet.

“We are excited to welcome all students and staff back to our buildings for the in-person experiences that we all missed this fall,” FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said. “We are encouraged and hopeful that learning in the fall will look as close to normal as possible.”

Families who intend to send their kids back for five days of in-person instruction this fall will not have to do anything. Those who want to use next year’s virtual option need to apply by May 21 and include a certification of need penned by a licensed medical professional.

The virtual option is an accommodation for the pandemic and will likely not be offered beyond the 2021-22 school year, according to FCPS.

“While we are busy planning for the fall, we do recognize that some students, in very limited circumstances, may have a documented health or medical need for virtual instruction,” Brabrand said. “Today’s announcement will help ensure that we are able to continue to serve all.”

A new law requires Virginia’s school divisions to provide five days of in-person learning to families who want it this fall. No school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option.

FCPS joins several neighboring jurisdictions in offering an in-house virtual program to students, including Arlington Public Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools, and Loudoun County Public Schools.

Unlike FCPS, which sees virtual learning as a COVID-19 measure, APS intends to one day permanently incorporate this option into its offerings.

The FCPS Virtual Program will be primarily taught by county teachers and accommodate students with special education needs and those who require English language learning services, but not all specialized programs or courses will be available.

Some courses will instead be offered through the statewide Virtual Virginia platform. FCPS officials initially proposed supporting students who need to remain online by continuing to utilize concurrent learning, where teachers provide instruction to in-person and virtual students simultaneously, but the school board decisively rejected the idea, citing teachers’ frustration with the additional workload.

School officials will decide case-by-case whether virtual students can participate in activities or athletics.

“We will see you in August,” Brabrand said.

Image via FCPS/Twitter

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Fairfax County Public Schools students will offer four days of in-person instruction to select students starting this week, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced yesterday (Monday).

The opportunity to get four days of in-person classes has been extended first to the pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students who have been experiencing the most significant challenges in virtual and hybrid learning.

FCPS says school personnel identified these students using the school system’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support model, which takes into account students’ behavior and social and emotional well-being as well as their academic success.

Other students may be able to receive four days of in-person classes starting the week of April 20, but only if their families opted for in-person learning in the fall and they are currently attending two days of in-person classes.

“I am thrilled to announce that FCPS is continuing to move forward with bringing back additional students to in-person learning — particularly our students who are experiencing the greatest learning challenges,” Brabrand said. “Overall, we see this as very good news for FCPS students, families, staff, and the community and will help us prepare for five days of in-person instruction this fall.”

Brabrand told the Fairfax County School Board on March 16 that FCPS could expand in-person learning to four days on a limited basis after spring break, with the goal of providing more support to students with disabilities, English-language learners, and others who have especially struggled this year.

To ensure that there would be sufficient capacity, FCPS required students who opted for some in-person learning to confirm that they were attending school regularly by March 26, the day before spring break. If they were not in class, they risked being reverted to all-virtual instruction.

FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell says that the school system does not have an exact figure for how many students were sent back to virtual learning, but those decisions were handled on school-by-school basis.

The expansion of in-person learning comes even though FCPS is instructing all staff and students at middle and high schools to maintain six feet of social distancing, citing Fairfax County’s high rate of community transmission of COVID-19.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for schools on March 19 to recommend at least three feet of social distancing in classrooms if everyone wears a face mask. However, the federal agency also said that middle and high school students should be at least six feet apart in communities with high transmission levels.

“This recommendation is because COVID-19 transmission dynamics are different in older students — that is, they are more likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and spread it than younger children,” the CDC said.

The CDC determines community transmission levels primarily based on testing positivity rates and the number of new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days. Fairfax County has recorded 103.4 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, and 5.2% of all PCR tests have been positive, as of the week of March 27, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s school metrics dashboard.

Caldwell says that the ability of schools to accommodate four days of in-person learning varies widely based on current occupancy, the size of classrooms and lunchroom spaces, furniture, and staffing.

“Some of our schools DO have open space,” she said in an email. “Some students who were expected to come back in-person did not; school staff reached out to those families who’s students did not show up and ascertained whether or not we might have open seats through those discussions. We are addressing these open seat opportunities now.”

In-person attendance currently ranges from 20 to 80% depending on the specific school, according to Caldwell, who also noted that staffing levels could become insufficient if employees need to quarantine.

As of Monday, FCPS has recorded 1,253 COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, including 660 cases among staff and 440 among students. Public health officials are currently investigating outbreaks at McLean High School, South Lakes High School, and the Word of Life Christian Academy, according to VDH.

Reported to the state on March 26, the South Lakes outbreak stems from 11 cases among players in the school’s football program. The outbreak led to the cancellation of two games and required almost 40 other students to quarantine.

“Each school is working within their own capacity to accommodate additional in-person opportunities for students whose families have already expressed a desire for them,” Caldwell said.

Photo via FCPS

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The Town of Herndon is considering a plan to allow Peppertree Montessori School to open at 400 Herndon Parkway.

An application asking for a special exception that would permit the opening of a private school or daycare at Sugarland West Business Center is slated to be discussed at today’s Planning Commission work session.

A special exception is needed since the school would lie in the Office & Light Industrial zoning district. The other occupant of 400 Herndon Parkway is Honeywell, an aircraft parts manufacturer.

According to the staff report, a recommendation from staff not been made yet to the Planning Commission.

This is due to a revised plan from the school detailing parking location, logistics of child pick-up/drop-off, and the size/location of the fenced play area still being needed. It is expected to be provided prior to the public hearing, which is set to take place on March 22.

The Peppertree Montessori school would use the existing building and no construction would be needed at this time, a Montessori school official confirmed. It’s simply an “occupancy change.”

Because of this, if approval happens soon, the school could start accepting students and open as soon as May, a Peppertree Montessori representative told Reston Now. Everything is currently “on track” for this to happen. The school is also currently scheduling site visits and tours.

Montessori learning is one that’s focused on individualized, personalized, student-led learning based on principles developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori in the early 20th century.

The proposed 4,951-square-foot school would hold up to 50 students, ranging in ages of newborns at 6 weeks of age to eight-year-old third graders. An outdoor fenced-in play area is also expected to be added.

Screenshot via Herndon Planning Commission Staff Report

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Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

I have never known a politician who has not promised better schools, quality of life and safety. Although these standards are defined differently by the persuasion of the persons making them, the promises share one thing in common: to be realized fully will cost money. The true measure of an officeholder comes not in the promises made but whether that person is willing to put their money where their mouth is. I could not be prouder as a member of the House of Delegates and the Appropriations Committee of the budget passed in the House of Delegates last week. The Senate passed a very similar budget with the differences between the two to be resolved in a conference committee over the next couple of weeks.

While debate over the budget is most often about spending, discussions need also to take into account revenues and investments. There had been dire predictions about state revenues heading into the pandemic, but the loss in revenue has not been nearly as great as feared. In addition, federal monies coming to the state for education and for COVID relief helped make up for lost revenue. The Governor’s proposed budget already had more than a billion dollars in reserve, and the House added $150 million to that amount to soften the impact of a decline of revenue next year without the same level of federal relief.

Both the House and the Senate funded the biggest investment in preschool education ever made. I term it an investment for much research shows that investing in early childhood education pays off many fold in later learning success, civic engagement, and quality of life. The House budget includes the state share of a five percent pay increase for teachers whose average pay has continued to lag behind the national average and who have had to do double duty this year with virtual learning. Funding is provided for another step to a 1:325 school counselor-to-student ratio moving towards the ideal of 1:250. Federal relief of $1.3 billion is provided for schools along with $51.1 million to address COVID-19 learning loss. An amount of $84 million is provided in the budget to maintain affordable access to Virginia colleges and universities and $8.5 million to increase Tuition Assistance Grant awards and include online education.

COVID-19 concerns drove many budget decisions. In addition to getting the schools open when safe and to make up for lost learning, the budget provides paid sick leave for essential workers, increased funding for nursing homes, and worker compensation for health care workers and first responders.

The budget makes investments in the future of the economy and our environment. Funding is provided to expand broadband access throughout the state. A one-time five million dollar capitalization fund is established for rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles for persons whose income qualifies them. The largest ever amount is provided for agricultural best-management practices to meet Chesapeake Bay clean-up benchmarks.

The best compliment that I and my colleagues could receive is that we put the public’s money where we have been told that it should be!

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand is asking for a $3.1 billion budget for the 2022 fiscal year that focuses “on the most pressing needs” of the school system.

He presented the nearly level-services budget — “a modest request” with an approximately $400,000 increase — to the county school board last Thursday (Jan. 7).

The proposed budget requests a $42.7 million increase in transfer funds from the county government to pay for new preschool special education classes, retirement rate increases, and rising health care costs, which would patch over a gap created by drops in county and state revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As all of you know, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted FCPS, our students, families, and staff in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” Brabrand said during the meeting. “I have designed a budget to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of our children so they can continue to learn and grow despite the challenges of the past year.”

The proposed budget includes money for distance learning, including cybersecurity protection and Zoom, which will replace Blackboard for web-conferencing, he said.

The budget does not contain compensation increases for most employees, though there is $3 million to finish a three-year initiative to increase the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants.

In December, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a state budget for schools that features a one-time, 2% bonus for teachers and support staff, with the potential for the salary boost to become permanent. But Brabrand said Fairfax County is opting out because it cannot afford to participate.

The burden would be on Fairfax County to match state funds with $32 million in county-level funding, he said.

“We understand that [FCPS] kept everybody whole,” Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams said. “But many staff see it as a slap in their face.”

In comparison, Prince William County offered compensation increases in its budget last year , and Loudoun County’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes money to cover compensations that were frozen last year, she said.

“If Loudoun and Prince William moved two steps ahead of Fairfax, we’re behind,” she said. “People are already irritated. This is a potential reason to leave.”

The lack of compensation particularly hurts Virginia teachers, who have the largest teacher wage penalty in the country at 32.7%, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams said.

“We’re disappointed that the FCPS proposed budget does not include a pay increase for school employees, especially after a year that is the hardest in their career,” she said in a statement. “We urge FCPS to demonstrate it values the hard work and dedication of its employees by providing wage and cost of living adjustments to help keep employees whole.”

The Fairfax County School Board will hold a work session to discuss the proposed budget tomorrow (Tuesday). A public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 26, though it could carry over to Jan. 27 if needed.

The school board will adopt its advertised budget on Feb. 18 and present it to the Board of Supervisors on April 13. A final approved budget is scheduled to be adopted on May 20.

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As students spend more time in front of screens for virtual learning, staff from the Fairfax County Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit will offer internet safety tips for children.

The virtual event, which is set for Oct. 27 at 7 p.m., is organized by the Reston Community Advisory Committee. The presentation will help parents learn more about how their kids are using the internet, according to the event description.

Here’s more from event organizers:

Things have changed, school is online, work is online, life is online. But do you know what your kids are doing and seeing on the internet? This virtual presentation will discuss how some of the more popular apps work, how to start the conversation about internet safety with your child and how you can prepare yourself for the world wide web according to your pre-teen or teen. This presentation is geared towards parents and family members.

Participants must register online to take part in the virtual conversation.

Photo via Annie Spratt/Unsplash

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The Fairfax Education Association is petitioning Fairfax County Public Schools to remain virtual until August 2021.

“​Science and Health Safety data support and require that no one should return to in person instruction until there is a widely available scientifically proven vaccine or highly effective treatment,” the petition said. “The metric for Safe Reopening should be 14 days of zero community spread.”

So far, the petition has more than 1,000 signatures and is 600 away from its goal. The union, which represents 4,000 staff in the school system, published the petition on Sept. 30, but received renewed attention after a tweet about it went viral.

But not all teachers support the petition, according to one Twitter user.

https://twitter.com/livinindc8/status/1318613492522430464

Parents who have been vocal on social media in their demands to reopen FCPS denounced the petition and its motivations.

FEA was not immediately available to answer questions.

FCPS Spokesperson Lucy Caldwell responded to the petition from the teachers’ union in a statement Wednesday:

Dr. Brabrand is working with FCPS staff and partners to ensure a safe, measured student in-person return to our classrooms and buildings. We firmly believe that while virtual environments are necessary at the current time, students learn best in-person. That experience cannot fully be duplicated on a screen. Many thousands of FCPS teachers, families, businesses, and the community at large, have expressed their strong support for students to return to in-person learning and we are working diligently to make this a reality as swiftly and safely as possible.

Our superintendent will continue to collaborate and engage with teacher organizations as he has been doing for the entirety of the pandemic planning, to help ensure safe, effective plans.

During a work session last Thursday, the Fairfax County School Board agreed to send to school on Nov. 16 students in the Early Head Start program, three- and four-year-olds, kindergarteners and special-education students who spend more than half their time in specialized education settings. No later than Nov. 30, students in grades 1 and 2 and in the specialized career centers will return to school.

The board asked Brabrand to determine the best timeline for regular-education students in grades 3-6 and 6-12, who comprise groups 7 and 8, respectively.

“I advocated for beginning, as soon as possible, some social distanced, outdoor activities for cohorts of students in groups 7 and 8. I am hearing from so many families and students themselves how badly this is needed,” school board member Elaine Tholen said in her weekly newsletter.

FEA outlined five guidelines its members say the school system should follow if it attempts to bring high-needs students and families back to school. According to the petition, they are:

1. All buildings should be equipped with HVAC Merv-13 filters, changed on schedule.

​​​​​ 2. All staff should be provided Medical Grade PPE (N95 masks, goggles, face shields, gowns, gloves, foot coverings, laundry service at each site).

3. All staff should be provided COVID testing.

4. NO Employees who feel unsafe, whether Tier 1- Tier 4, should be forced to return before the ​safe reopening metric of 14 days is met.

​ 5. All staff and families should be granted the option of teleworking/distance learning.

“Since none of the requirements for safe return are likely to be met in the foreseeable future of the 2020-21 school year, we reiterate: Keep Fairfax County Public Schools Virtual for the 2020-21 school year,” the petition said.

The other teachers’ union representing educators in Fairfax schools, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, recently released data showing that teachers are not confident in the system’s reopening plan.

This came after board members had blasted a previous version of the plan for lacking specific data. Last week’s presentation included metrics on ventilation, personal protective equipment as well as guidelines for making local decisions to open or close school buildings.

Image via Fairfax Education Association

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Helping to supplement K-12 curriculum in the era of COVID-19, Reston-based maker space Nova Labs decided to extend its class offerings this fall with a new program.

Called Nova Labs MakerSchool, the school is designed by Nova Labs Vice President Karen Shumway who said the program supports homeschool students whose parents want to ensure they have a comprehensive education.

“Whether you have been homeschooling for years, were already unhappy with your child’s school situation before COVID-19 made its appearance, or want to augment traditional schooling, the Nova Labs MakerSchool is here to provide an uncommon, innovative solution to twenty-first century education,” the school’s website said.

Students in the program can either join full-time “pods” of students in their age group or take classes “a-la-carte,” the website said.

Each pod of students consists of a six to eight kid class size and allows students to learn together in a “Montessori” style setting, according to Shumway.

The program focuses on science, engineering and technology, Shumway said, but added that the curriculum offers humanities as well.

Once COVID-19 hit, parents at the maker space began talking about alternative options to online learning through Fairfax County Public Schools – which inspired her to come up with the idea for the new school in June, according to Shumway.

Classes are set to begin in September but registration is still open for certain age groups and individual classes, Shumway said.

Though creating a new curriculum in just a few months may seem daunting, Shumway said it wasn’t a problem since she had taught k-12 science before at public schools in West Virginia.

“These are courses I’m familiar with and had already built out, so all I really had to do is go into my computer and pull it up,” she added.

On the program website, Nova Labs Makerschool lists over 31 class offerings for students, each of which will be taught by 12 instructors, according to Shumway.

Since Nova Labs Makerschool offers a variety of time offerings, parents can choose a schedule that best fits their needs.

Private schools can be expensive, but a goal of the program is to keep tuition affordable for working families, according to Shumway. Though there are no scholarships yet available for low-income students, Nova Labs MakerSchool is in the process of forming corporate partnerships that would supplement cost.

“I have a couple of leads but haven’t had time to track them down yet,” she said.

Full-time tuition will cost parents $7,500 for the 2020-2021 school year, the website said, adding that semesters run for 15-weeks each.

Though not technically an accredited school option, Shumway said that she works with families to keep the kids on tack, so they would be able to test into a comparable grade if they wanted to make the transition to a public school.

Considering Fairfax County spends roughly $15,000 a year per student, according to Shumway, the school is trying to keep costs low for parents while still paying staff fairly.

Photo via Nova Labs MakerSchool/Facebook

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As families, educators and school systems grapple with how to return to school during the coronavirus pandemic, some parents are turning to “learning pods” this fall.

Learning pods — also known as “pandemic pods” — are essentially micro-schools. Small groups of kids learn together in-person either from a tutor or parents.

A New York Times survey found that most of the families who said they plan to use learning pods said that they address both concerns about health risks at school and desire for in-person education.

Some local parents say that having multiple families chip in makes hiring a tutor more affordable and that the pods will make it easier for them to go back to work than if their kids were learning virtually.

However, the concept has raised questions about the wealth disparity with education.

Fairfax County Public Schools recently brought up concerns about “tutoring pods,” saying that the school system is declining requests from parents to have FCPS teachers lead their pods.

“While FCPS doesn’t and can’t control these private tutoring groups, we do have concerns that they may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students,” the statement said. “Many parents cannot afford private instruction. Many working families can’t provide transportation to and from a tutoring pod, even if they could afford to pay for the service.”

Let us know in the poll and comments below what you think of learning pods.

Photo by Element5 Digital/Unsplash

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand has no plans to furlough bus drivers and food service workers, despite the virtual start to school next month.

In a letter sent to the community last night (Monday), Brabrand said he plans to “keep our FCPS family 100 percent intact” as the school year begins. Bus drivers are set to return to work on August 25. Some will deliver meals to specific locations or along select bus routes.

In other cases, the school system may provide other work assignments like facilities maintenance, student support, and delivering books and supplies to schools.

Brabrand also said the school system is working on an alternative plan to keep all food service workers employed throughout the academic years. Funding for service food service employees, which primarily relies on the sale of food, has taken a major hit due to school closures.

Here’s more from Brabrand’s letter:

I’d like to thank our food service employees for your heroic efforts to provide grab and go meals for our families since our schools shut down in March. More than 2 million meals have been served so far. Food distribution will continue through the rest of summer break and once the school year begins.   

A community survey is underway to determine meal demand for the upcoming school year. The results will determine if changes to the food striation schedule are warranted.

Other staff — including security guards and office employees — may also be asked to shuffle their job duties to support virtual learning.

The FCPS School Board is meeting today for a day-long work session to continue formalizing plans for the return to school.

Photo via FCPS

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Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

My mom and dad had little or no formal education which was not that unusual for children in large families growing up in rural Virginia in the 1920s. What they lacked in schooling they made up in basic values of honesty and hard work. Their ambition for their three sons of which I was the youngest was to finish school which for them meant high school. Mom’s advice to me for I had obvious interests in doing more than graduating high school and working a local job was captured in the words of the country music song of Earl Scruggs and later Ricky Skaggs, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin.'”

Going off to college as the first in my family to do so was a frightening experience but one that soon became a labor of love. I could not learn enough about the world around me and most especially about history and politics. I was a product of a public school system in Virginia, and even as a youngster I knew that the story of the state was much more complex and involved than the glorification of its history presented in the state-approved textbooks. My love of learning led me to finish an undergraduate degree in history and political history at the then Old Dominion College. I went on to the University of Virginia where I received a master’s degree in teaching the social studies in 1967. That program had an internship experience that led to me being placed in Fairfax County Public Schools from which I retired thirty years later.

I refused to use the state-approved textbook on Virginia history in my classroom because of the distortions and misinformation it contained. My school administrator supported me, and a few years later I consulted with FCPS when it produced its own edition of a more-accurate Virginia history textbook. Also about the same time, I announced my candidacy for the House of Delegates and was elected on my third try. My interest was not to change school textbooks but to help alter the course of the state’s history to remedy the many wrongs of its past and to make it a state where all people had equal opportunity. I knew about the inequality of opportunity in the state by my volunteer work with the Community Action Agency.Setting aside challenges related to the pandemic and the craziness of the current federal administration, I feel a greater sense of hope for the Commonwealth than I believe I have ever had. I have written often about the transformative General Assembly session this year and the passage of much-needed legislation on fairness and equality that had been debated and never passed for years. This month the General Assembly will take another important step in reforming our criminal justice system.

As my friend and historian Bent Tarter wrote recently in a column “Black Lives and Confederate Monuments,” (www.virginiaforum.org) “We all have much to learn, or we will continue to repeat the sorry sequences of violence that exacerbate rather than solve problems. Learning, one of my college teachers explained, should involve a change in behavior.” As a native Virginian I sense that now more than ever we will at long last be seeing changes in behavior in the Commonwealth.

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Fairfax’s Edge in Flagging Office Market — Microsoft’s 400,000-square-foot-deal at Reston Town Center was one fo the biggest leasing wins for this region this year. But county business leaders see more deals coming, despite a slowdown created by the coronavirus pandemic. [Bisnow]

Reservations for Ridge Heights Pool Open Tomorrow — Reston Association is now offering members and non-members a chance to reserve a spot at the pool. The updated pool schedule is also available online. [Reston Association]

Herndon-based Company Offers Virtual Learning for Students — “Herndon-based online education provider K12 Inc. announced Wednesday it plans to hire more than 1,300 educators for the 2020 through 2021 school year, in light of a massive push to move education online during the pandemic. Across Virginia, schools have been making decisions regarding reopening in the fall, with some already opting for full online learning.” [Virginia Business Monthly]

Photo via Marjorie Copson

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