Snow Days to Stay — The Fairfax County Public Schools System is resuming snow days this year after the pandemic changed the school system’s inclement weather policy. The first five snowy days will be traditional inclement weather days. But after that, the school system plans to have unscheduled virtual learning days “wherever possible.” [FCPS]

Metro Hires Consultants to Analyze Safety — The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Board of Directors plans to hire an external consultant to offer advice on safety. The move comes a week after the derailment of a Metrorail train on the Blue Line. [Reston Patch]

Reston Company Raises $4.5 Million in Seed Round — ForecastEra, Reston-based company, formally announced a new seed round investment of $4.5 million. The company offers a account planning, sales, revenue and demand forecast suite that is native to Salesforce. [InsideNOVA]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Ann Flynn, a long-time Fairfax County Public School teacher and community leader, died last week at the age of 85.

Flynn was an educator at Hunters Woods, Dogwood, and Terraset elementary schools for more than two decades, primarily teaching first grade. She was among the first teachers at Dogwood and Terraset, when that school first opened in 1977, her family says.

“She used to say she loved teaching first grade because she could still do the math,” daughter Merri Flynn told Reston Now. “Really, it was because…it was the year she got to see such huge improvement because it was the year that most children learned to read. And she really loved being able to help them learn to read.”

She was beloved as a teacher. Her son Christopher attended Terraset while his mother taught there and has received notes with fond remembrances from former students all week.

“You can’t get away with a whole lot [at school] when your mom’s down the hall,” Christopher said. “A lot of people I went to school with remember her as a teacher.”

The family says “dozens of folks” have commented on a post they made on Facebook about Flynn, who was loved by family and pupils because of her compassion, generosity, thoughtfulness, and listening skills.

“I think people felt comfortable with her because she was quiet and an excellent listener,” Merri said. “She was always interested in what people were saying about their lives and she would remember details.”

She also loved sharing and seeing photos of loved ones.

“She was one of those rare people who really loved seeing pictures of other people’s family, especially babies and children,” Merri said with a laugh.

After spending time in San Francisco, D.C., and Norfolk, Flynn and her husband Tom, a Naval officer, settled in Reston in 1970. It became their home for the next several decades.

Even after Flynn retired as a public school teacher in 1992, the couple remained very active in the Reston community. The Flynns helped out at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, running its Angel Christmas and Birthday Club. Both of these programs worked through the local nonprofit Cornerstones to provide gifts to children.

The couple was honored by the Virginia General Assembly in 2003 for their community service efforts.

Flynn also assisted with weddings at the church, sometimes walking up and down the aisles.

“She wanted to make sure no one was chewing gum,” Merri Flynn said.

As a mother and grandmother, she was always present.

“She had a big smile whenever anyone she loved entered the room,” Thomas Flynn, Mary Ann’s grandson, said. “She just made you feel very special whenever you were talking to her. There was a kind of beam shining on you because everything was just about you.”

Flynn’s commitment to education went beyond her career. She helped to set up a library at Falcons Landing, a military retirement community in Potomac Falls that she and her husband moved into in 2014.

“She was a lifelong educator, but she did it in a really gentle way,” Merri said. “She never talked down to someone or made them feel less than.”

According to those who knew her, Flynn’s defining quality was her dedication to being an advocate for her family and students.

“She was your champion,” Merri said. “She always had your back.”

Mary Ann Flynn is survived by her husband Tom, three children, and two grandsons, Andrew and Thomas. Her death was preceded by that of her parents and a son, Thomas Edward Flynn IV.

The visitation and funeral mass will be held tomorrow (Aug. 31) at St. John Neumann Catholic Church at 11900 Lawyers Road, starting at 10 a.m.

The burial will take place at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery, where Flynn will join her son Thomas.

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(Updated at 12:45 p.m.) All high school students will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in school sports, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced this morning (Monday).

The requirement will apply to students who plan to get involved in Virginia High School League winter and spring sports this school year, along with activities like dance team and out-of-season workouts that require a physical, but it will take effect on Nov. 8, prior to the postseason for fall sports like football and field hockey.

An FCPS spokesperson says the Nov. 8 date was chosen, because that’s when the school system will start having indoor sports.

“As FCPS students return to our school buildings, our priority must be on our academic programming,” the spokesperson said. “Our data is showing that a significant number of our cases stem from athletics and a disproportionate number of students are having their learning impacted. Therefore, we have made the decision to mandate vaccinations for students who wish to partake in a number of close contact athletic disciplines. By taking this step, we hope to limit the number of students who are being instructed to remain out of school buildings.”

The announcement comes one week after FCPS started its 2021-2022 academic year and 10 days after the district issued a vaccination mandate for employees that’s expected to take effect in October.

As recently as last Tuesday (Aug. 24), school officials had expressed uncertainty about the legality of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students.

“As I understand it, that’s not something we’re able to do yet in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Brabrand said at a school board work session. “…I do think, just like the staff vaccination mandate, we need to, as this pandemic evolves, continue to go back and return to these kinds of issues that can really help make our schools safe for in-person instruction now and forever.”

Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders, who served on a state task force that looked at the issue, confirmed that Virginia law requires any vaccination requirements for students come from the Virginia Department of Health, which would refer the mandate to the General Assembly.

“The legislature is not meeting again until January, but this may be an area where this board, as we look at our legislative priorities, would urge that,” Corbett-Sanders said.

However, in that same meeting, some board members raised concerns about students missing class time due to sports-related COVID-19 cases and the amount of time that health officials needed to conduct contact tracing, since there was no system in place to quickly determine who had already been vaccinated.

FCPS says vaccinations can be mandated for student athletes without state approval, because sports aren’t required activities and students don’t earn grades or credit for participating in them.

According to the FCPS case dashboard, 234 people, including 164 students and 69 staff members, have reported testing positive for COVID-19 to the school system this month as of Friday (Aug. 27).

Most cases appear to be occurring in elementary schools, but Brabrand says the majority of instances where high school students need to pause instruction have been the result of exposure during athletic activities.

“While we know this is a difficult decision for some families, it is an essential step that we must take to limit the duration of a pause, getting students back to the classroom and their activities sooner, but still safely,” Brabrand said, noting that FCPS will work with the Fairfax County Health Department to ensure students have access to the vaccine before the mandate takes effect.

Brabrand’s full message to the FCPS community can be found below: Read More

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Morning Notes

Construction continues on redevelopment of the Lake Anne Fellowship House (via vantagehill/Flickr)

NoVA Child Dies From COVID-19 — “Today, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) announced that a child in the Northern Region with COVID-19 has died. VDH will disclose no further information about the child to protect privacy and out of respect for the patient’s family. This is the first reported death of a child in the Northern Region with COVID-19 in Virginia.” [VDH]

Fairfax County Task Force Returns From Haiti — Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department responders who deployed to Haiti as part of the Virginia Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue team came home on Wednesday (Aug. 25). The 65-member task force landed at Dulles International Airport after 11 days of supporting the disaster response to the Aug. 14 earthquake that devastated the island nation. [WTOP]

Charges Anticipated in Herndon Stabbing — As of 5:45 p.m. yesterday (Thursday), the suspect in a stabbing that occured that morning in the 1000 block of Elden Street in Herndon had not yet been apprehended, but a police department spokesperson said they “do not believe he poses an immediate danger to our community.” Charges are expected to be filed in the case today (Friday). [Patch]

FCPS Sees Decline in Test Participation — “Fairfax County and Virginia schools as a whole saw declining participation in the spring 2021 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. At Fairfax County Public Schools, participation rates fell by an average 20 percent in reading, mathematics, and science. Around 50,000 tests were refused this year, compared to over 500 in 2018-19.” [Patch]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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

The first day of school is always a nerve-wracking affair, but the stakes felt especially high on Monday (Aug. 23), when Fairfax County Public Schools brought back roughly 180,000 students after more than a year of mostly virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the return to school unfolded relatively smoothly, students, staff, and parents raised a multitude of concerns as well, primarily around transportation and the lack of distancing and masks in cafeterias, Fairfax County School Board members said during a work session on Tuesday (Aug. 24).

The transportation challenges were largely expected, as FCPS advised families last week that a school bus driver shortage would lead to delays. In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Scott Brabrand reported that the district had filled 86.4% of its 1,121 bus driver positions as of Monday, leaving 152 vacancies.

Still, the advance warning didn’t make the delays less frustrating for students and their parents.

“[Parents] want to know how long is it going to take for their children to come in, and [there were] also lots of concerns with students who were left outside to wait for their buses, and they don’t know how long,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said. “Is it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 45? When we have the heat we had yesterday and rain that’s going to come, because let’s be clear, this transportation issue is not going to be resolved any time soon.”

According to an FCPS spokesperson, the Langley area has been hit hardest by the shortage, though the school system was unable to provide data on exactly how many students have been affected by bus delays.

Noting that the school system has 20 “double-back” routes this year, compared to just eight last year, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg told the board that delays were reduced by 40% from Monday morning to Tuesday.

Even on Tuesday morning, however, late runs to Langley High School, Spring Hill Elementary, and Longfellow Middle School were all an hour off of their schedules.

“We know everybody is anxious about it, including us,” Platenberg said. “We’re excited about this start for the school year. We have some extreme challenges with this bus driver shortage, but we are working with our communities.”

He added that kiss-and-ride lines at schools were “jammed” on Monday and Tuesday, calling it “a healthy problem to have” since the crowds indicated that parents were heeding FCPS’ advice to drive or walk their children to school if possible.

One parent who asked to not be identified described the kiss-and-ride experience at her son’s elementary school as “absolute pandemonium,” with supervising staff seemingly scrambling to figure out where students were supposed to go.

In one case, a 4-year-old girl ended up on a shuttle to an after-school program that she doesn’t attend, leading her parents to post on social media that she was missing.

“I’m not trying to disparage the teachers who are clearly out there doing the best that they can, but from a system standpoint,” the parent said on Tuesday. “Yesterday and today were very, very hot days to just sit there for 30 minutes with no shade. What if it’s a pouring rainy day? What is your system? There has to be a better way to think through this.” Read More

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Fairfax County Public Schools is considering providing $1,000 bonuses to its employees, along with a base pay increase for bus drivers.

FCPS administrators and the school board discussed the potential compensation boosts during a work session yesterday (Tuesday), when they also debated how to spend and oversee $189 million in federal COVID-19 relief money.

As part of its fiscal year 2021 budget review, the district could use $32.7 million for one-time bonuses to employees, which is unrelated to the relief money. A retention strategy similar to bonuses given to county government workers, the bonuses would be $1,000 for contracted employees and $500 for 3,352 hourly workers.

A vote on the budget review is scheduled for the school board’s meeting tomorrow (Thursday). If approved, the bonuses would be paid in November, according to FCPS staff.

Springfield District School Board Representative Laura Jane Cohen raised concerns about the proposed gap between what full-time and temporary staff would receive.

“I would argue that there is no way in the world we could have gotten through last year and now even more with folks being quarantined [without substitute teachers],” Springfield District representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

The discrepancy led the school board to consider whether temporary staff could also get $1,000. Those workers include some 2,500 substitute teachers as well as other workers, such as coaches and dining room assistants, but someone who worked one day would also be eligible, according to Sean McDonald, interim assistant superintendent with the Department of Human Resources.

During their work session, the school board also discussed plans for the ESSER III money (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) that FCPS got from the $1.9 trillion stimulus that Congress passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act this spring.

The ESSER III fund is intended to help FCPS respond to pandemic-related issues and will run from this current school year through June 2024. The proposed spending plan covers increased workloads for Individualized Education Program (IEP) staff, addresses students’ social and emotional needs, and supports other school operations.

FCPS staff also pitched allocating nearly $3.3 million to increase bus drivers’ pay, citing a need to stay competitive with surrounding school districts.

“I believe our labor market is fundamentally restructuring before our eyes right now,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said.

He said the ESSER III money could raise the minimum pay of the district’s 325 bus drivers to “step six,” or around $23 or $24 per hour. Faced with a shortage of drivers, FCPS is currently offering a starting salary of $19.58 an hour to new drivers, along with a $2,000 signing bonus.

Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin expressed disappointment with the ESSER III spending plan, saying she wanted more information on how staff came up with the dollar amounts for each line item.

“I’m sitting here in shock,” McLaughlin said. “…There’s no way I’m voting for this on Thursday, and here’s why. At some point, this board has got to demonstrate where we stand on our fiduciary responsibility.”

FCPS has proposed spending the money based on four categories:

  • Address learning deficits
  • Provide for students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs
  • COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies
  • Other uses, such as technology, communication, translators, interpreters, project management, and transportation

Those will help give individual schools flexibility in how to spend their money with FCPS providing oversight.

“The flexibility is there so a school with those needs can shift the funds and resources as approved by the region to take care of those specific needs,” said Mark Greenfeld, assistant superintendent of the Department of School Improvements and Supports.

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Fairfax County Public Schools’ first electric school bus (courtesy Dominion Energy)

Fairfax County Public Schools will soon add another 10 electric school buses to its fleet, thanks to a new $2.65 million state grant.

19 school districts, including FCPS, will collectively receive more than $10 million in the latest round of allocations from Virginia’s Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust — enough to replace 83 diesel school buses with electric and propane-fueled vehicles, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last Wednesday (Aug. 19).

“Virginia’s investments in electrifying the school bus fleets is an important and critical part of our comprehensive approach to reducing pollution,” Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor said in the news release. “Collectively, the replacement of these school buses is calculated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 tons per year, and will save one million gallons of diesel fuel, equivalent to removing 2,000 cars from the road.”

Administered by Department of Environmental Quality, the Volkswagen trust comes from Virginia’s $93.6 million share of the $2.7 billion settlement that the automobile manufacturer agreed to in 2016 after violating the Clean Air Act by cheating vehicle emissions tests.

Virginia announced the first round of funding from the trust on May 7, awarding over $9.4 million to help local governments purchase electric vehicles for their fleets. Fairfax County got more than $4 million for shuttle buses, waste and recycling trucks, and a truck for its public library system.

FCPS currently has eight electric buses that were placed in service this past May. The first bus arrived in January as part of a pilot program developed by Dominion Energy, which rolled out 50 buses across the state with plans to replace all diesel school buses with electric ones by 2030.

However, the future of Fairfax County’s transition to electric school buses has become a little hazier after the Virginia House of Delegates rejected an expansion of Dominion’s program that would’ve added 1,000 more electric school buses, a sign of legislators’ growing wariness of the utility company’s influence.

During its spring special session, the General Assembly voted to create an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund to help with the costs of adding electric school buses. Northam signed the bill into law, but the program has no funding yet.

Dominion confirmed that the newly awarded DEQ grants are unrelated to its program, which covered the difference in cost of an electric bus versus a diesel one as well as the cost and installation of charging stations.

“Children deserve clean transportation to school and we’re excited to see Virginia moving that way,” Dominion spokesperson Peggy Fox said. “The goal with our innovative program was to accelerate the adoption of electric school buses, so we’re thrilled to see more of these clean-running buses with zero emissions rolling out across Virginia.”

The utility says it is still offering to install charging stations for school districts for free in exchange for the ability to return stored energy back into the electric grid when the buses are idle and the chance to buy the bus batteries after the vehicles pass their life span.

“We will be involved if schools systems chose so,” Fox said in an email.

FCPS says its transportation department “continues to evaluate” its existing electric buses and work with vendor Thomas Built Buses to make adjustments.

While shifting to electric buses is expected to reduce operational and maintenance costs in the long run, the district’s transition is currently limited by the availability of funding and charging infrastructure, which affects where the buses can be assigned.

“As more funding opportunities become available, as the technology is refined for school division needs, and as charging infrastructure becomes readily available, FCPS plans to transition its fleet of 1,625 buses to electric,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said by email.

The 10 new buses funded by the DEQ grant are scheduled to arrive in March 2022.

“Operation and maintenance of the electric buses are being monitored and evaluated for efficiency of operation and cost savings,” Moult said.

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Morning Notes

Fairfax County Kids Return to School — “We are back, ready to experience all the great things that come with learning together, five days a week in person. We can’t wait to see our students arrive at school…Show off that first-day excitement by posting photos to your favorite social media site and tagging them with #FirstDayFairfax and #FCPSReturningStrong.” [FCPS]

MWAA Proposes New Tech on Dulles Toll Road — “The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority wants to add digital signs and closed-circuit monitoring technology along the Dulles Toll Road. The airports authority is looking for a contractor to build the infrastructure and install an intelligent transportation system — which would include six dynamic message signs and 15 closed-circuit television installations — along the widely-used commuter route.” [Washington Business Journal]

W&OD Trail Near Wiehle Reopens After Utility Work — The Washington & Old Dominion Trail has reopened east of Wiehle Avenue in Reston after closing earlier this summer so Dominion Energy could relocate overhead electric transmission lines. The utility work was necessary to prepare the site for construction on a pedestrian bridge over Wiehle that’s expected to begin next summer. [The W&OD Trail/Twitter]

Virginia Leads in Rent Relief Funding After Past Stumbles — “From January through May, Virginia distributed more dollars than any other state from the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, according to U.S. Treasury figures. By the end of June, Virginia ranked second only to Texas…As of late July, Virginia has spent more than $335 million in rental relief funds and assisted more than 51,000 households, according to state figures.” [Associated Press/WTOP]

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(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed a case today (Friday) that sought to recall Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen.

Tholen’s legal team had argued against letting the case continue in court, which came after a parents’ group called Open FCPS Coalition collected and submitted over 5,000 signatures to protest school closures during the pandemic.

“Citizens who disagree with elected officials’ policy choices should vote for someone else in the next election, not ask courts to yank them from office,” Tholen’s legal team previously argued in seeking to dismiss the case.

The group, which has received funding in part from a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a nonprofit committed to with center-right policy advocacy, voiced opposition to how the school board handled the closures. A petition submitted to court argued that keeping schools closed hurt children with disabilities the most.

The legal team for Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, argued in part that the lawsuit contained “no allegations that comes close to showing that Tholen acted with ‘wilful,’ ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ intent.”

“We are very pleased that the Court dismissed this case and saw it for what it was – an attempt by a small number of people to substitute their judgment for that of the full elected School Board,” a Fairfax County School Board spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to a full, five-day schedule of in-person classes starting next week.”

Democrats weighed in on the matter Friday.

“Republican operatives are leading these so-called ‘bi-partisan’ groups seeking to overturn the democratic election of our officials,” Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chair Bryan Graham said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The pandemic has caused a difficult situation for all of us, and our school board has done a tremendous job balancing the need to keep our community safe while serving the education needs of our students” and more.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat whose office covers part of Fairfax County, called the dismissal a signal that recall efforts are a waste of time and resources. He said on Twitter that the “statute is being misused to frivolously harass elected officials by a small minority” of constituents.

Open FCPS Coalition had also been collecting signatures to recall two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen. The group previously said those members were chosen because those representatives gathered the least amount of votes, which lowered the amount of signatures needed to file recall efforts.

When it submitted the petition for Tholen on July 19, Open FCPS Coalition said only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way that it felt was consistent and a priority.

The petition required that a special prosecutor to handle the case. Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley of Albemarle County was appointed to that role on Aug. 10.

“[Hingeley] concluded that he could not prosecute the recall petition because it did not have a sufficient basis to move forward,” the school district said in a statement. “So, he moved to dismiss the petition and the judge granted the motion to dismiss.”

In a statement, Open FCPS derided Hingeley’s decision to request a dismissal as evidence of politics being put ahead of children’s well-being.

“It is a shame that the voices of thousands of parents have been silenced by a Commonwealth’s Attorney, who just like the School Board, is more interested in politics than the wellbeing of our kids,” Open FCPS Coalition founder Dee O’Neal said. “Hingeley chose special interests over parents and children who deserved representation.”

In a statement, Tholen called the legal case “an ordeal” but said she was glad she could now focus her attention on the students who will return for five days a week of in-person learning on Monday (Aug. 23).

“I am excited to say, we have over 180,000 students starting school next week. Those students need our full attention to keep them safe and to give them the best education possible,” she said. “They are still suffering in a pandemic, just like the rest of us. Please, let us put these divisive events behind us and work together to give our students the positive, undivided attention they deserve.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has implemented a universal masking rule and announced earlier today that staff will be required to be vaccinated by late October.

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Just days before the new school year is set to begin, Fairfax County Public Schools says it hasn’t hired enough bus drivers to fully serve the thousands of students who rely on the bus fleet to travel to and from school.

In a message posted to its social media channels, FCPS advised parents to walk with their children or drive them to school if possible, stating that “there may be delays impacting bus routes” across the county when school starts on Monday (Aug. 23).

FCPS says it is unable to provide exact numbers for the gap in staffing “because the situation is so fluid,” but the shortage is part of a nationwide trend that has resulted in reports of buses arriving hours late or not showing up at all from Stafford County and Lynchburg City to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Broward County in Florida.

“Like other school districts across the country, we do have more shortages than is usual for this time of year,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said. “We are actively recruiting and offering a $2,000 signing on bonus and are working to limit any potential disruption.”

Moult added that students will not be penalized if they are late to class due to a delayed bus.

Fairfax County Public Schools notified the community that a bus driver shortage will likely lead to delays when school restarts on Monday (via FCPS/Facebook)

The bus driver shortage is the latest instance of staffing challenges interfering with efforts to resume five days of in-person learning for more than 180,000 students in Virginia’s largest public school district.

After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shift to virtual learning in March 2020, teachers’ wariness of returning to physical classrooms earlier this year led FCPS to hire hundreds of classroom monitors that provided support and supervision for in-person students.

FCPS then delayed its Extended School Year classes for students with disabilities this summer, because it didn’t have enough teachers, especially for its special education program.

According to an ABC News report, it’s not unusual for schools to be short-staffed on bus drivers at the beginning of an academic year, but this year’s deficits have likely been exacerbated by health concerns: buses provide little space for distancing even when many students were still learning virtually, and drivers are often retirees, a demographic that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Curt Macysyn, executive director for the National School Transportation Association, told ABC News that money and competition from commercial transportation jobs could also be factors.

The Fairfax Education Association, an FCPS employees’ union that represents more than 400 transportation workers, said in a statement that it believes higher pay would help alleviate the driver shortage:

We certainly know that our transportation staff play an important role in the lives of our students. This shortage will potentially delay the start of a school day, force multiple runs to cover all routes, and put drivers into a position of driving many more students than should be considered safe on a bus during this COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing will not be possible. Masks will be required. We believe that increases to hourly wages, in addition to the signing bonuses, would attract and especially retain our current drivers and attendants. We are committed to working with FCPS to address this situation.

As of 2018, the national median salary for bus drivers was $16.56 per hour or $34,450 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. FCPS starts wages for school bus drivers at $19.58 per hour, on top of offering a $2,000 bonus to new drivers this year.

FCPS says on its website that the shortage will require available drivers to more regularly cover two scheduled routes back-to-back that typically would be served by two different buses. These “double back” runs may affect pick-up and drop-off times before and after school.

FCPS has set up a webpage that will list delayed buses, which can also be tracked through the Here Comes the Bus mobile app.

“We understand that any transportation delay is frustrating and has an impact on the entire family,” FCPS said. “Thank you for your flexibility as we work through some of our challenges with transportation this fall. Our goal is to serve each and every one of our students and our families with safe, efficient transportation.”

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(Updated at 10:25 a.m.) All Fairfax County Public School employees will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing, the school system announced this morning.

The requirement will take effect “by late October,” according to the news release:

To keep our commitment to provide students with five days a week of in-person instruction this year. Vaccination is the most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent severe illness. We must take every measure possible to keep our schools safe.

To give employees the peace of mind that comes with knowing their workplace is a safe place. Knowing coworkers are either vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID-19 provides confidence and comfort so we can focus on our mission- educating kids.

To reassure FCPS students and families they are learning in the safest environment possible. We can assure everyone who enters our building that our workforce is either vaccinated or is reporting to work with a negative COVID-19 test.

To lead by example. FCPS continues to promote vaccination for everyone, including our students, as soon as they are eligible. Our goal is for every eligible employee to be vaccinated. The sooner our community reaches a high vaccination rate, the sooner we begin to put the pandemic behind us.

FCPS had already established a universal masking policy for all students, staff, and visitors inside school buildings, but as recently as Wednesday, officials had said that they were not mandating vaccinations, though the option had not been definitively ruled out.

The change comes days after two unions representing FCPS employees — the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and the Fairfax Education Association — issued statements saying that they would support a vaccine mandate.

“Our teachers and staff have gone above and beyond to keep their students safe and healthy during the pandemic. Most signed up for vaccines as soon as they were available,” Providence District School Board Member Karl Frisch said in a statement. “This was the right decision. To keep our students safe and our schools running smoothly, it is critical that everyone in our community who is eligible gets vaccinated — not only our educators and school employees. That is how we will ultimately put this pandemic behind us.”

As of 9:50 a.m. today (Friday), a majority of respondents in an informal poll conducted by Reston Now and sister site Tysons Reporter said they would support a vaccine requirement not just for staff, but also for students. However, the opposition to a mandate has grown since the results were checked last night.

Students will return to classes on Monday (Aug. 23).

“FCPS continues to encourage vaccination for everyone, including students, as soon as they are eligible,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a message sent out to families this morning. “This summer, Fairfax County has seen vaccination rates for our young people soar. We have some of the highest vaccination rates across the country for this age group.”

According to FCPS, 61.9% of adolescents aged 12-15 in Fairfax County are now fully vaccinated, along with 74.4% of 16 to 17-year-olds.

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Morning Notes

Reston Association Board Names Acting CEO — The Board of Directors named COO Larry Butler as the organization’s acting CEO last night (Thursday) in preparation for current head Hank Lynch’s resignation effective Sept. 3. Butler also served in the position when RA conducted its last CEO search in 2018. Lynch’s permanent successor will be chosen by a committee created by the board. [RA]

Pedestrian Deaths Worry Fairfax County — Route 1 has become a focal point of concerns about traffic safety in Fairfax County, which has recorded 10 pedestrian deaths in the past seven months. The police department launched a campaign this summer urging drivers in the Reston area to slow down, especially at two intersections around Reston Town Center. [NBC4]

Second Union Backs School Vaccine Mandate — The Fairfax Education Association, which represents Fairfax County Public School teachers and staff, joined the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers in supporting the idea of a vaccine requirement for FCPS employees. The union also supports universal masking and called on the school system to extend its Family Medical Leave Act paid sick leave policy through Dec. 31. [FEA]

Car Seat Inspection Event Tomorrow — “Safety matters! Our Traffic Safety Section is hosting a car seat inspection and install event on Saturday, August 21 at 1421 Wiehle Avenue in Reston from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. Inspections and installations are on a first come, first serve basis.” [Fairfax County Police Department/Twitter]

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An FCPS employee at an Inova COVID-19 vaccine clinic from earlier this year (Photo by Karen Bolt/Fairfax County Public Schools)

The first day of school is less than a week away, and for many students, teachers, and parents, it’s coming with even more anxiety than usual.

For the first time since mid-March 2020, nearly all Fairfax County Public School students will attend in-person classes five days a week starting on Monday (Aug. 23).

With COVID-19 still in the air and students younger than 12 unable to get vaccinated, FCPS has an array of health protocols aimed at curbing the risk of infection, including an indoor mask requirement, outdoor classes and dining where possible, and diagnostic testing for people who display symptoms.

However, the school system is not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees or eligible students. Arlington Public Schools is the only Northern Virginia district to issue a vaccine requirement for staff so far, though the Alexandria City school board is expected to discuss the issue today (Thursday).

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, the union that represents FCPS educators and non-administrative staff, said earlier this week that it would support a mandate, and FCPS says it will “continue to consider all options that keep our staff and students safe.”

While many colleges and universities have issued vaccine mandates for students, legal and political concerns make it unlikely that any K-12 schools will take a similar stance, even though they already require other immunizations.

According to Fairfax County Health Department data, 78% of adolescents aged 12-17 and 65.6% of all Fairfax Health District residents have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

“While mandatory vaccination is a policy decision and not a policy that the health department would be in charge of making, we do really support and urge everybody to get the information they need in order to make a positive decision to get vaccinated, which is really more important than ever with the Delta variant,” FCHD Director of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Benjamin Schwartz said during a virtual town hall on Monday (Aug. 26).

With the COVID-19 vaccines shown to be effective at preventing serious illness, albeit slightly less so against the Delta variant, should FCPS require the shots?

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Updated at 7:50 p.m. on 8/19/2021A second FCPS employees’ union, the Fairfax Education Association, released a statement today (Thursday) saying that it would also back a vaccine mandate for all workers and urged the school system to extend its paid sick leave policy for staff who have to quarantine through Dec. 31.

Earlier: The union that represents Fairfax County Public Schools teachers and staff says it would back a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for employees if the school system decides to institute one.

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers leaders released a statement expressing their support for requiring staff to provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing on Monday (Aug. 16) as FCPS staff returned to work in preparation for the start of the new school year on Aug. 23.

“Feedback from our members shows that there is strong support for a vaccine mandate among our membership,” the FCFT executive board said in its statement. “As we see the Delta variant spreading across the US and the growing case numbers among children, and knowing that our students under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated until at least winter, we support all measures we can take to reduce the spread and protect these students.”

FCPS has emphasized the importance of staff and eligible students getting vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, including in a virtual town hall that Superintendent Scott Brabrand hosted with county health officials on Monday, but the district has stopped short of requiring shots.

Arlington Public Schools became the first Northern Virginia system to implement a vaccine mandate for its employees, announcing last week that the requirement will take effect on Aug. 30.

With COVID-19 cases surging again due to the infectious Delta variant, vaccination requirements are becoming increasingly commonplace among both public and private employers. Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Aug. 5 that state government workers must show proof that they are fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, encouraging localities and businesses to follow suit.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on July 27 to explore requiring vaccination or weekly testing when county government employees return to offices in September, though no official plan has been publicly announced yet.

While it doesn’t have specific data on which staff members are vaccinated, FCPS says 90% of its staff had registered to get vaccinated as of February, suggesting that the vaccination rate is higher now. School officials have not ruled out the possibility of making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory in the future.

“At this present time, we are not mandating vaccinations for staff but we continue to consider all options that keep our staff and students safe,” an FCPS spokesperson said.

In addition to endorsing the idea of a vaccine requirement, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers says its members “strongly support” FCPS’ universal mask policy, which has been expanded since it was first announced on July 28 to include all individuals in all indoor settings regardless of their vaccination status.

The union also called on FCPS to work with the Fairfax County Health Department to provide more on-site vaccine clinics and rapid testing sites, let employees participate in required staff meetings virtually, provide administrative leave for any staff member who has to quarantine due to a work-related COVID-19 exposure, and give staff at least one day to transition to virtual instruction if a class, school, or the district has to close.

Clear, consistent, and timely communication will also be key to ensuring that the return to five days of in-person learning is successful, the union said.

“While ever-changing COVID conditions contributed to the upheaval of last year, there are many places where strong leadership and clear communication could have reduced staff workload and stress, rather than add to it,” FCFT said. “It is imperative that FCPS leadership seek out feedback from staff members who work directly with students to utilize the expertise of those with firsthand experience on how policies and procedures work in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and buses.”

An FCPS spokesperson says the school system will finalize details on how staff leave will work for quarantine situations before the start of the school year, and it will offer staff a virtual option for meetings with parents.

“We continue to consider all requests from staff and families as we work together to ensure a smooth and safe school year,” FCPS said.

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