Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand with a face mask (via FCPS)

Virginia school districts will make their own rules regarding masking requirements for the upcoming school year, the state’s education and health departments announced today (Wednesday).

The Commonwealth will let a public health order that’s in effect until Sunday (July 25) expire, thereby ending a statewide mandate that kids over age 5 wear masks indoors at public and private schools and putting decisions in the hands of local officials.

“The science is clear that vaccinations and masks help keep our communities safe from COVID-19,” Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said in a statement. “The Commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Fairfax County Public Schools currently requires masks to be worn indoors for students, staff, and visitors when school is in session “until more students aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated and until younger students become eligible for vaccination.”

“We are reviewing the guidance and reaching out to hear from our community, and will share a plan early next week with staff and families,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement.

Virginia’s new guidance says elementary schools should require students, teachers, and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available for young children. For middle and high schools, it recommends that students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated be required to wear masks indoors.

State officials said the change will allow districts to make their own decisions and the switch reflects changes by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which  loosened its guidance earlier this month and advised that masks should be worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, by contrast, recommends that, unless they are unable to do so due to medical or developmental challenges, all school staff and students over the age of 2 should wear masks at school, even if they’re vaccinated.

The changes come as daily COVID-19 cases have increased in Virginia and the U.S., and the especially contagious delta variant now represents 83% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to a CDC estimate.

Over 70% of students ages 12 to 17 in Fairfax County have been vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines for those under the age of 12 are not yet authorized but currently undergoing trials.

The CDC has said that most students, including those with disabilities, can tolerate and safely wear a mask, but a “narrow subset of students with disabilities” may be unable to do so and should not be required to wear one.

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Fairfax County Public Schools is planning to launch an esports program later this year (via Alex Haney/Unsplash)

Some Fairfax County student athletes won’t be headed to courts or fields this winter, but instead, to computer labs, as the 10th largest school district in the country prepares to launch an esports program.

The Fairfax County Public Schools athletic director detailed the new initiative to Tysons Reporter, saying the new program will connect students in high schools through a popular, soccer-like game — in which players drive futuristic cars — called Rocket League.

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for our students,” said Bill Curran, director of the FCPS Office of Student Activities and Athletics, noting how students will have another way to fit in. “I think we’re going to have 25 highly competitive schools in the esports realm.”

While concerns about students’ screen time have persisted, even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt virtual learning, competitive online gaming has become increasingly popular, with both high schools and colleges getting in on the esports action.

The market research firm Newzoo reported in March that esports viewership increased from nearly 398 million people globally in 2019 to nearly 436 million in 2020 and could potentially reach 474 million this year.

The NCAA governing board voted in April 2019 against bringing esports under its purview, even as the association noted the rapid growth of esports on NCAA campuses.

“You’re going to see this ball roll faster and faster,” Curran said.

ESPN launched a new initiative to cover esports in 2016, though it shut the division down last year. In 2018, it became the first TV network to air a professional gaming contest in prime time for the cartoon-style multiplayer online battle game League of Legends.

YouTube and Twitch have also streamed content that’s worth billions of dollars and expected to grow annually, though that’s just a small slice of the video game industry.

The Virginia High School League, which governs sports, activities, and competitions in public schools throughout the Commonwealth, introduced esports as a pilot program in 2019 before approving it as an “emerging activity” for the 2020-2021 school year that could become sanctioned as an official VHSL activity.

Fairfax County Public Schools is currently looking for coaches to participate in its esports program, which has been in the works for more than two years and will operate under its Activities and Athletics office. Some teachers have already shown interest in helping, according to Curran.

Students will have to pay a $64 fee each season through a startup company PlayVS, which provides computer games and requires students to maintain eligibility through grades and attendance. FCPS is looking at ways to prevent the fee from becoming a barrier to participation.

With schools expected to open for in-person learning five days a week this fall, FCPS plans to have students participate in existing computer labs, rather than remotely. Like a traditional sports team, Curran says Fairfax County’s esports teams will likely have jerseys.

“Our kids, you know, they’re already playing the games,” Curran said. “They’re ready to go, and they’re eager for us to start this.”

Photo via Alex Haney/Unsplash

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The Fairfax County School Board approved a framework yesterday (Thursday) to seek federal COVID-19 money, with the stipulation that it gets increased oversight and input on how the money will be spent.

The roughly $189 million plan would start with the upcoming school year and extend to June 2024. It is intended to help Fairfax County Public Schools respond to issues stemming from the pandemic.

“While we did have a public hearing about where people would like us to target our monies, we have not had the opportunity to get the greater details from the superintendent and his team,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said.

The school board thanked district administrators for developing the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) framework after learning about the incoming funds in May, but several board officials questioned whether the proposal was sufficiently detailed and provided enough accountability.

“The ESSER funds are unlike other funding by the federal government in that it has a requirement to have extensive community input and outreach,” Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said.

The ESSER III money will support school operations, cover increased workloads for Individualized Education Program (IEP) staff, aid academic interventions, address students’ social and emotional needs, help with translation services for students, and more.

The largest costs, as identified by district staff so far, would involve:

  • $54.9 million for academic intervention
  • $46.2 million for special education teacher contracts
  • $23.3 million for social and emotional learning needs
  • Nearly $20.2 million for summer 2022 learning
  • Nearly $14 million for afterschool programming and transportation

According to an FCPS presentation about the program, the ESSER money should address the impacts of the pandemic especially for students who have been disproportionately affected, and at least 20% must be used to address learning loss, among other rules.

The money will come through the Virginia Department of Education from the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law in March.

Corbett-Sanders said FCPS faces an Aug. 1 deadline for submitting a general framework to the state before giving a more specific plan for how it will spend the funds by Sept. 1.

“Rather than just greenlighting, ‘They’re giving us $188.6 million, we’re going to put it in a line item list,’ we felt that it was important to have a little bit more comprehensive planning around the ESSER funds grant,” Corbett-Sanders said.

With the board’s initial approval, Superintendent Scott Brabrand will present an official ESSER III plan prior to the board’s Aug. 26 business meeting. He will present more detailed information, including targeted goals, operational timelines, and accountability metrics in a September work session.

The board’s motion also stipulated that state-filed amendments to the plan that reach $100,000 or more must be authorized by the board.

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand (via FCPS)

(Updated at 11:30 a.m.) Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand will step down from the position at the end of the upcoming school year, FCPS announced this morning (Thursday).

Brabrand will leave at the end of his current contract, which was extended through June 30, 2022 by the Fairfax County School Board in December.

The announcement of Brabrand’s impending departure comes as FCPS prepares to start a second phase of expanded summer school and resume five days of in-person learning for all students when the 2021-2022 school year kicks off in August.

“My colleagues and I are extremely grateful for Dr. Brabrand’s unwavering commitment to FCPS students, staff, and families,” School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson said in a statement. “We look forward to our continued collaboration toward the goal of returning all students to school safely for five days in the fall and providing every child the instructional and social emotional services they need this coming school year.”

While FCPS did not expand on Brabrand’s decision to leave next year in its press release, his departure follows a year of unprecedented challenges as school systems nationwide scrambled to adapt to closures and a massive shift to virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the leader of Virginia’s largest public school system, Brabrand was tasked with balancing the sometimes competing needs of a diverse population of students and staff, drawing criticism from both parents who pushed for school buildings to reopen and faculty wary of the health risks that they would face from teaching in person.

Prior to the pandemic, Brabrand’s tenure as superintendent, which began in 2017, has been characterized by an emphasis on equity and supporting students’ social and emotional needs as well as their academic success.

The effectiveness of his efforts has been mixed so far. For instance, changes to the admissions process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology produced the magnet school’s most diverse class in years, but conditions for students with disabilities in FCPS have drawn repeated scrutiny, prompting a federal investigation and policy changes.

Brabrand’s career with FCPS has spanned almost 30 years, starting in 1994 when he was a social studies teacher, according to the news release.

Dr. Brabrand, a career changer who was inspired by doing volunteer work in the schools, began his career in FCPS as a social studies teacher in 1994. He also served as an assistant principal at Herndon High School and an associate principal at Lake Braddock Secondary School before becoming principal at Fairfax High School in 2005. In 2009, he was promoted to cluster assistant superintendent, where he was responsible for 29 schools and more than 22,000 students, and provided collaborative leadership for 27 principals and administrators. Prior to being named superintendent at FCPS in 2017, Dr. Brabrand spent five years as superintendent of Lynchburg City Schools.

“I pledge to continue to serve with the same love and passion for FCPS that I had when I started,” Brabrand said. “In the best of times and in the worst of times, I have always strived to lead with a steady hand and a full heart.”

FCPS says Brabrand will work with the school board “to lay the groundwork for a smooth transition in leadership at the end of his term.”

The school system plans to hire a search firm to identify and recruit potential candidates, according to a new webpage on the search process.

“The School Board will immediately begin the process of finding a new division superintendent,” FCPS said. “Community members will have opportunities to participate in the process.”

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Crossfield Elementary School in Herndon (Photo via Fairfax County/YouTube)

Crossfield Elementary School in Herndon is in the early stages of planning a $31 million renovation and addition.

The project will include renovations of the existing building, plus library and main office additions, a Fairfax County Public School spokesperson told Reston Now in an email.

In total, the renovations and additions will encompass 101,000 square feet of space and is estimated to cost about $31 million. It’s expected to be completed late 2024 or early 2025.

The project is currently in the design phase, with this portion of the project being funded by the 2019 School Bond referendum.

It’s likely to remain in this phase for at least a while longer. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved an extension of the review period for the project’s submitted 2232 application during its meeting on Tuesday (July 13).

The 2232 process is required for public facility projects to ensure they are in line with the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan.

Since the application hadn’t been approved within the 60 days of its submission, an extension was needed. This is a standard practice for a public facility project, according to a county official.

After the design phase, it will head to permitting before construction begins.

The elementary school on Fox Mill Road opened in 1988 and is named after A. Scott Crossfield, an aeronautical pioneer who lived nearby the school.

A test pilot in the years leading up to space exploration, Crossfield made history in 1953 when he became the first pilot to break Mach 2, flying twice the speed of sound.

After his retirement, he lived in Herndon and down the street from the elementary school that bore his name. Nearly every year, he attended the school’s sixth-grade graduation. In 2006, at the age of 84, Crossfield was killed when the plane he was flying crashed.

Via Fairfax County/YouTube

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Fairfax County will hold more summer classes for students with disabilities later this month after staffing issues put the program in jeopardy.

After families were informed that a teacher deficit was delaying the Extended School Year program, the school district adjusted it into two blocks, the first of which is already underway, to allow it to keep class sizes low but do more with less staff.

“We’re in a special education crisis,” Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Tuesday (July 13) during a work session with the school board.

He noted around half of the 400 job openings that the district currently has involve special education, but according to the school district, a second Extended School Year block is “almost fully staffed.”

“There is a full commitment that we will have a fully staffed second session of the ESY,” Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said, adding that FCPS notified families and provided a timeline for transportation, food services, and more.

Earlier this month, FCPS apologized for communications that suggested the “administration was faulting teachers for failures of the system to supply optimum programming.”

“Our staff members have gone far beyond ordinary expectations and we are grateful for their professional dedication,” the district said on social media.

While officials praised teachers and administrators for making services work this summer, FCPS is looking to build within its own ranks to help address long-term faculty shortages.

School officials are working to apply for COVID-19 relief from an ESSER III fund (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief). The money comes from the $1.9 trillion stimulus in the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in March.

Previous federal COVID-19 relief plans included ESSER funds administered by state education departments, though local school districts had to apply to obtain the funds.

The school board was slated to vote on a plan for how to spend the roughly $189 million that FCPS is seeking when it meets tomorrow (Thursday).

The money would cover a three-year span, starting with the upcoming school year through June 2024. Intended to help schools safely open after a challenging year due to the pandemic, the funds can be used to support school operations and address students’ social and emotional needs.

The proposed plan would allocate $46.2 million to special education staff, which amounts to a 7% salary increase to cover the extra 30 minutes needed each day to file Individualized Education Program paperwork due to the pandemic, according to FCPS.

The funding sought would also involve around $2.5 million for professional development. According to Tuesday’s presentation to the school board, that effort would involve two new employees each year. It isn’t immediately clear if that’s all for salaries or if other expenses are involved.

Other requests include $54 million for academic interventions, $2 million for cybersecurity, $15.9 million for after school programming and transportation at high schools, and $20.1 million for a summer 2022 learning program.

Board members pressed FCPS officials for more accountability and strategic planning in its plans for the federal funds. Community members previously weighed in through focus groups in May and June, online feedback, and a June 7 public hearing.

Wilda Smith Ferguson, a parent of a child with special needs in the district, said during the June meeting that the school system’s decisions regarding protocols haven’t taken children like hers into consideration.

“She is totally dependent on her teachers and the support staff at the high school that she attends,” Ferguson said. “I would like to see some of the money in the grant go to, basically, instead of ‘trickle down,’ trickle up. Figure out what is best for the most vulnerable and work up.”

The deadline for FCPS to apply for ESSER funds is Sept. 1.

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Left to right: Olympic athletes Andrew Seliskar, Chioma “CiCi” Onyekwere, and Trevor Stewart (via University of California — Berkeley, University of Maryland, and North Carolina A&T)

Several Olympians competing on the world stage in Tokyo this summer can trace parts of their athletic journeys back to Fairfax County.

Swimmer Andrew Seliskar, discus thrower Chioma “CiCi” Onyekwere, and runner Trevor Stewart all qualified for the 2020 Olympics, which will take place from July 21 to Aug. 8.

The games were delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will be held without spectators after Japan announced on Friday (July 9) that it would enter a fourth state of emergency starting today (Monday) due to rising cases of the virus.

Seliskar, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2015, is taking on his first Olympics after two previous qualifying attempts at ages 19 and 15, including one where he “narrowly missed” a semi-final spot.

As a student, he broke a national high school record for the 100-yard butterfly in 2014 near Richmond with 53.24 seconds, and he won four national titles swimming at the University of California in Berkeley before becoming a professional swimmer.

The 24-year-old McLean native told Fairfax County Public Schools that he relishes his competitions against high school rivals.

“Those were great memories, and for my swimming career, those are some of the best ones,” he said.

He also told WJLA-TV that his Olympic dream began swimming with a youth swim team, the McLean Marlins.

Heats for the men’s 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay are scheduled for 6-8:30 a.m. EDT on July 27, and the final will air from 9:30 p.m. EDT on July 27 to 12:05 a.m. EDT on July 28.

Robinson Secondary School graduate Onyekwere will represent Nigeria at the Olympics, since she is a dual citizen of that country and the U.S.

“I feel like Nigeria made me the person I am today, so it’s so nice to give back in some kind of way and represent them,” she told FCPS.

The Michigan-born former University of Maryland athlete currently holds Nigeria’s discus throw record of 63.3 meters, which she set in April in Chula Vista, California, as part of the Nigerian Olympic Trials.

The 27-year-old engineer works for Ford and relocated back to Fairfax County last fall to be with family amid the pandemic, FCPS noted.

The qualifying round for the women’s discus throw is 8:30 p.m. EDT July 30, and the final is 7 a.m. EDT Aug. 2.

Stewart, who graduated from South County High School in 2016, will run the 4×400-meter relay race for Team USA.

His teammates include a fellow student at North Carolina A&T State University. The pair were part of a 4×400 relay team that won national titles this year for the indoor and outdoor track seasons, capping his senior year.

The 24-year-old switched from karate to track and field when he was in ninth grade. To prepare for the upcoming games, he has turned to prayer and meditation, according to FCPS.

“I worked hard for this,” he told FCPS. “There’s always room for improvement, but I’ve made it right now. I’ve made it right here.”

Heats for the men’s 4×400 meter relay are slated for 7:25 a.m. EDT Aug. 6 and 8:50 a.m. EDT Aug. 7 for the final.

The Tokyo Olympics will feature a total of 339 events across 33 sports. They will be broadcast and live-streamed in the U.S. by NBC.

Photo composite via University of California — Berkeley, University of Maryland, and North Carolina A&T

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(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) There’s a tiger on the prowl at Terraset Elementary School, thanks to the hard work of the seven-member Junior Girl Scout Troop 1632.

A new 94-foot-long mural of the body and tail of Terry the Tiger — Terraset’s mascot — now adorns the sidewalk leading to the school. At the end of Terry’s tail is the school slogan, and nearby, colorful flowers have sprouted on one of the school’s formerly-bare garden sheds.

This is due to the talent and effort of the Reston-based Junior Girl Scout troop, who completed it to meet a scout requirement and to add a little joy for Terraset’s staff and students.

“I want them to think that we really put a lot of effort into it and that it makes them maybe happy,” says 10-year-old Avery McCusker, who will start fifth grade at Terraset this fall.

Terraset Principal Lindsay Trout agrees that, after such a difficult year, Terry’s already bringing smiles to faces.

“The tiger and motto are making a difference to those who have seen them,” Trout said in a press release. “They beautify the school, boost school spirit…and are fun. I’ve already seen both kids and adults walk the winding tail of Terry the Tiger into the school.”

Junior Girl Scout Troop 1632 formed six years ago with many of its seven members having known each other since they were in preschool, so more than half of their lives.

The mural took hours of preparation, mostly done virtually.

As Avery points out, kids her age can’t be vaccinated yet, so they had to continue to stay safe and apart. So, when the girls gathered outside on a hot Saturday in mid-June to paint, it was a joyous occasion.

“It was like the first time we were seeing each other in person in over a year basically,” says McCusker. “It was really nice, because we all got to have fun together and stuff.”

Even with a little help from adults, including South Lakes High School art teacher Matthew Ravenstahl, who helped design the mural so that it could fit the walkway, painting the tiger and flowers took all day.

The entire project cost about $1,000, mostly for supplies and stencils, but the troop raised all the money themselves by selling cookies, magazines, and other products.

For their efforts, the seven members of the troop earned a Bronze Award.

“A Bronze Award is the highest honor a Junior Girl Scout can earn unless she saves a life,” Troop 1632 co-leader Angie Tombul said. “As Girl Scouts work hard to raise money and earn awards and badges, they are simultaneously learning the importance of giving back to the community in positive ways.”

Terry the Tiger is now ready and waiting to greet students when they return this fall back to Terraset Elementary, which opened in 1977.

It will be McCusker’s first time going to school in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. She’s looking forward to it — with some reservations.

“I am kind of [excited], but I’m also kind of not because I don’t like masks,” says McCusker, referring to the expectation that unvaccinated students will still be required to wear face masks. “But overall, I am.”

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.

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Akshita Balaji on the steps of Rachel Carson Middle School (via Fairfax County Public Schools)

For 14-year-old Akshita Balaji, a combination of hard work and passion spelled success.

A Herndon resident, Akshita tied for 21st place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals, which was held virtually and aired on ESPN on Sunday (June 27) after the nationwide competition was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She spent around 12 hours per day preparing for the last six months and studied around 6,000 words per day.

“It was definitely a little hard at first but I kind of got used to it,” she said. “When I was studying, it didn’t feel like I was doing work, you know? Because one word led to another.”

When she saw a word, she wanted to know its relation to another or why it’s spelled that way, she explained.

Her Scripps placement marked the first time in at least a decade that a Fairfax County Public Schools student has advanced that far, according to FCPS via the Fairfax County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

Since the event, she’s been taking it easy. Her family held a party the following day, and friends visited and brought her gifts, and family sent her flowers, gifts, and cake.

“Everybody posted a lot of messages for her on Facebook and, you know, different forums,” her mother, Sumitra Sampath, said. “We created a little scrapbook for her with all those messages…[and] pictures from different bees.”

A graduate of Herndon’s Rachel Carson Middle School, Akshita will attend ninth grade at Westfield High School in the fall and wants to become a surgeon one day.

Her vocabulary could come in handy for medical school. She notes that Romance languages like Spanish, which she studied last year, and French, which she plans to learn, have Latin roots that could help with the learning curve. She also knows Tamil and Hindi.

“Because of spelling, the Latin word, when it goes into French, you can tell what Latin word it came from,” she said. “That helps you really understand the language because you can…understand the roots and actually where it came from and not just memorize what it means.”

Sampath noted that her daughter, who won her first spelling bee when she was in first grade, watched the Scripps bees on TV as a kid, looked up to prestigious spellers in elementary school, and wondered how cool it would be to win.

Akshita hoped to reach the finals, which will take place in person at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort on July 8, but she says she’s interested in competing in other spelling bees this year.

Scripps semifinalists receive a commemorative medal and $500 gift card. The overall winner gets $50,000 and other prizes. The contest is limited to those who are in the eighth grade or below.

While Akshita has now aged out of the Scripps competition, her mother also notes that her daughter is interested in coaching younger students.

Akshita gained some experience during the pandemic, leading classes on various topics a few times each week on Zoom with young children of friends’ families in the area when schools shut down.

“She wants to…pursue coaching now,” Sampath said. “I think she will be a pretty good coach because she works really well with the kids and she has that knack.”

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Transgender Pride flag (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

(Updated 4:30 p.m.) A contentious meeting over acceptance of transgender students in Loudoun County Public Schools has Fairfax County officials eyeing their own policy and pushing for more equitable regulations to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.

The Loudoun meeting, which discussed a new policy that requires trans students be treated respectfully and allowed to use restrooms and play in sports that align with their gender, comes months after Fairfax County Public Schools adopted similar new regulations in October.

A spokesperson for FCPS said the regulations adopted in October are still undergoing review to ensure they align with state guidelines. An FCPS spokesperson said all regulations are reviewed annually to ensure they are in compliance with new state legislation.

The new regulations grant transgender students access to various facilities consistent with their gender identity and effectively prohibit dead-naming students — using pronouns or names in records that don’t reflect the student’s gender identity.

“They’ve been mulling about it for a few months,” said Robert Rigby, a Latin language teacher at West Potomac High School and co-president of FCPS Pride. “Many students were thrilled. There was a blast of happy messages with multiple exclamation points. They were ecstatic after years of being dead-named in online platforms and in grading and by substitutes. Suddenly, they could just talk to their counselor and get it changed.”

Rigby said there was an “enormous relief” among students. Staff training started in March to prepare and educate teachers about the new regulations.

FCPS had previously added gender identity to the school system’s non-discrimination policy in 2015. Rigby said several factors over the last year helped push FCPS into codifying protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students, crediting:

  • Gavin Grimm’s recent victory when the Supreme Court rejected a Gloucester County school district appeal of a lower court decision that found the schools had violated Grimm’s rights
  • State legislation requiring local school districts to have policies adhering to how individuals identify their gender and requiring access to bathrooms and locker rooms associated with their gender
  • The election of the first openly gay school board member Karl Frisch

“These protections are long overdue,” said Frisch. “If we are truly committed to fostering a caring and inclusive culture, gender-expansive and transgender students must be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else. They must be made to feel safe and accepted.”

Others in Fairfax County leadership, including Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay, rebuked the comments made during the Loudoun school board meeting.

Rigby, who has taught at West Potomac High School since 1999, said faculty and parents, along with some students who felt welcome, have helped advocate for the changes, but student advocacy can be sometimes hindered by concerns about subjecting students to humiliations like those on display at the Loudoun meeting.

“Students advocate to us, but quite frankly it’s not incredibly safe and can be very alarming for young LGBTQIA to speak openly at School Board meetings,” Rigby said. “There have been dreadful things said and doxxing, so we caution children and their parents: when you speak publicly, this might happen.”

Rigby said the Loudoun was one of the worst he’s seen.

“We’ve had some dreadful meetings in Fairfax over the years, the worst being May 7, 2015 when they updated the non-discrimination policy,” Rigby said. “It also happened in 2002 when we were talking about a harassment policy. We’ve seen this happen in our county, but Loudoun was worse than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Still, Rigby said overall there’s been remarkable progress in the attitudes of many in the school system over his last two-decades of advocacy.

“I’ve seen attitudes in teachers, parents, and students take a big change,” Rigby said. “It’s changed dramatically. It’s a change beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s relieving and frustrating. I was discussing with a friend last night, another advocate who is a school psychologist, just how far we’ve come and how wonderful it is. It’s taken a long time. There’s an awful lot of work left to do.”

Rigby said FCPS Pride and other organizations are trying to focus now on offering more rounded care for students who may not receive support at home.

“We’re turning our eyes now to children who are housing-vulnerable, who aren’t welcome in families,” Rigby said. “Fairfax is definitely setting up structures to help families and children come to agreement… The school system is putting together these structures to help kids at school and at home.”

Photo via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Morning Notes

Heat Turns Up in D.C. Area — Daytime temperatures are expected to stay in the mid-90s for much of this week, with a possible heat index of 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit through Thursday (July 1), according the the National Weather Service. Fairfax County says to stay hydrated, remain in shaded or air-conditioned locations as much as possible, and check on neighbors who may be vulnerable to the heat. [Fairfax County Government]

Unattended Candle Ignites Herndon House Fire — A small house fire in the 13000 block of Farthingale Drive in Herndon was started on Friday (June 25) by an unattended lit candle in the bedroom. The blaze was extinguished quickly, but it still displaced three people and resulted in about $20,000 in damages. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department]

Few Restrictions Anticipated for FCPS Fall Return — “Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Scott Brabrand said he’s ready to get students back in schools, and said he thinks it will be pretty normal as far as precautions go… ‘Our planning assumptions include no social distancing in our classrooms,’ Brabrand said.” [WTOP]

Juneteenth Celebrated at Frying Pan Farm — “The Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park sponsored its inaugural Juneteenth Celebration on June 19 at Frying Pan Spring Meeting House on Centreville Road. While generally not open to the public, the integrity of the historic 230-year-old Meeting House and its adjoining springs, baptismal pond, grounds, and cemetery proved an appropriate location for the celebration.” [Reston Connection]

via vantagehill/Flickr

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Renovations at Reston’s Langston Hughes Middle School are expected to be mostly complete by the time students return in the fall.

Started in early 2019, the $39 million renovation project will add about 183,566 square feet to the school at 11401 Ridge Heights Road. It has remained mostly on track timing-wise with “substantial completion” tentatively set for this fall, confirms Fairfax County Public School spokesperson Lucy Caldwell.

Final closeout work is expected to be finished by the end of the calendar year.

“The schedule is tentative and while FCPS will hold the contractor to the terms of the contract, there are items such as material and supply shortages which we do not have control over and may impact a schedule,” Caldwell noted in an email to Reston Now.

The renovations and addition are being funded by bond referendums approved by Fairfax County voters in 2015 and 2017.

With school now out for the summer, crews are currently working on renovating the music department, drama department, custodian office, equipment storage, gyms, and locker rooms.

The last 18 months have seen the completion of work on the library, cafeteria and kitchen, bus loop, parking, classroom renovations, and a two-story addition on the left side of the building.

Also added is the “Hall of Nations,” a flexible space intended to serve as an auditorium, a classroom, or a breakout space.

The immense renovation and considerable additions are intended to accommodate about 1,250 students at the middle school, which had 1,011 students enrolled for the 2020-2021 academic eyar.

“The new addition and complete renovation will provide ample natural light, 21st Century technology and a welcoming learning environment for our students,” the school’s website says.

Langston Hughes Middle School opened in November 1980, but construction was still ongoing on some elements, including the kitchen, so students were served cold “Super Sack” lunches of sandwiches and fruit. The official dedication of the school took place six months later in May 1981.

It was named after poet Langston Hughes, continuing a tradition of naming county public schools after poets and authors like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Rachel Carson. Although Hughes lived mostly in Harlem, New York, a resurgence of interest in his works at the time resulted in Fairfax County naming a school after him.

Hughes was also the great-nephew of local abolitionist John Langston, who has a number of schools and streets now named after him in Arlington.

Come the fall, students are expected to return to in-person learning five days a week. While most of the renovations will be done by then, final “punch list” items and minor work will likely still need to be completed.

This may include removal of trailers and stabilization of grass and plantings, writes Caldwell. Some of this construction may be performed in the evenings and weekends for safety reasons and to avoid disruptions.

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Fairfax County School Board meets during its regular meeting on Thursday, June 17. (Screenshot from FCPS meeting)

The Fairfax County School Board is providing expanded support for adult education programs and services, particularly in Herndon and Reston.

The board provided consent for a lease renewal and expansion of Fairfax County Adult High School as well as the consolidation of Fairfax County Public Schools instructional and services programming in the Herndon and Reston area during a regular meeting yesterday (Thursday).

The consent follows the staff recommendation to continue and expand the existing lease at the Herndon Centre III shopping complex on Elden Street or another financially and functionally feasible location to consolidate other programs.

The programs considered for consolidation specifically include the Transition Support Resource Center, Adult and Community Education (ACE), ACE-English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and the Community Welcome Center, which would have student registration, ESOL assessments, and community liaison services.

“There is an increased demand for Fairfax County Adult High School services,” FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in a statement to Reston Now.

“Currently these programs are operating in undersized spaces and at various locations in the Herndon/Reston area that unintentionally cap enrollment and create inequity of service delivery of these programs with like programs offered in other parts of Fairfax County.”

The effort to consolidate the spaces used by the programs is meant to allow FCPS to provide an appropriate classroom learning and training environment, according to Caldwell.

The consent item on the school board’s agenda also stated that there is an opportunity for the board to “capitalize on favorable lease rates available in the commercial real estate market today that ‘stretch’ buying power and permit the rental of additional space at a much reduced per square foot cost.”

A new lease would also allow the re-use or removal of three ACE trailers at Herndon Middle School.

A new lease could also provide a one-stop opportunity for students and families with a shared location for a welcome center with instructional programming that would allow easier access to ESOL assessments, student registration, and other community services.

The consent item stated that neither FCPS nor Fairfax County facilities are available to meet the needs of these programs, which could require as much as 30,000 square feet of space.

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A former Oakton High School student will get another day in court after a three-judge panel ordered a new trial in her lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board over school officials’ handling of a sexual assault report in 2017.

In an opinion released yesterday (Wednesday), Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judges James Wynn Jr. and Stephanie Thacker reversed a judgment rendered by a jury in 2019 and sent the case back to the U.S. District Court for a new trial, stating that the lower court incorrectly defined the legal standard to determine whether officials knew about the reported assault.

“We hold that a school’s receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX — regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood the report to allege sexual harassment or whether they believed the alleged harassment actually occurred,” Wynn wrote in the majority opinion.

A third judge on the panel, Judge Paul Niemeyer, wrote a dissenting opinion that Fairfax County Public Schools is not liable under Title IX — the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education — because its conduct was not so indifferent that it caused or amounted to discrimination.

Identified in court documents as Jane Doe, the plaintiff argued in a complaint filed against the school board in 2018 that FCPS administrators and employees did not meaningfully and appropriately respond to her report that a fellow student sexually assaulted her during a school band trip.

A junior at the time, Doe said she “struggled academically, emotionally, and physically” as a result of the experience, alleging that school officials suggested she might be disciplined for the incident and did not inform her parents about her report or the result of the subsequent investigation, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit representing her.

A jury in Alexandria determined in August 2019 that Doe had been assaulted and that the experience affected her education, but they found that the school board could not be held liable because it didn’t have “actual knowledge” of the assault, a term some jury members later said they found confusing.

That confusion became the basis for Doe’s appeal of the ruling, which came before the appeals court for oral arguments in January.

“I’m so grateful that the Fourth Circuit is sending my case back for a new trial, and recognized that Fairfax’s legal arguments would lead to ‘absurd results’ for student survivors like me,” Doe said in a statement provided by Public Justice. “It means a lot to me that the appeals court’s strong opinion will protect other survivors. Every student deserves to feel safe in school.”

An FCPS spokesperson said yesterday that the school system “respects the court’s decision” and was in the process of reviewing the opinions.

Public Justice attorney Alexandra Brodsky, who delivered the plaintiff’s arguments before the Fourth Circuit, said in a statement that the appeals court’s ruling makes clear “ignorance is no defense to violating students’ rights.”

“FCPS’s behavior — dismissing a student’s report of sexual assault out of hand — is too common among school districts across the country,” Brodsky said. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Jane Doe’s case should serve as a warning that all schools must train staff to recognize and address sexual harassment.”

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Parents who have spent the last year calling for a five-day return to school for Fairfax County Public Schools students are circulating petitions to remove three Fairfax County School Board members.

They are Springfield District representative Laura Jane Cohen, Dranesville District representative Elaine Tholen, and At-Large Member Abrar Omeish.

“Our petitions are all about the board ignoring science, dismissing the wishes of parents to have kids in school, and putting politics (unions) before our children,” the Open FCPS Coalition group told Reston Now. “We have people of all walks of life — young and old, with kids and without kids signing. People were afraid to sign at first because they didn’t want to get involved. But as more time passed, and people got disappointed about the school board lying to us, they started signing.”

They admitted that the campaign faces long odds. According to Ballotpedia, Virginia has seen just one successful recall campaign in at least the past decade, with the majority of efforts — including one against former Mason District School Board representative Sandy Evans — failing to reach a circuit court.

This parent coalition has been around since November and started distributing petition templates to other counties around that time. But the momentum did not pick up until mid-February, members said.

“December and January, people still weren’t getting out much and if they were, it wasn’t to come and sign a petition,” the group said. “Many people who sign now sign because of other things that they are frustrated with, but we are just glad people are recognizing our efforts.”

The Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a bipartisan organization.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, donor records show that its largest gifts have come from former Republican governor candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America Inc., a conservative group that has been vocal in school reopenings. Its largest expenditure has been for signature collection services, an expense that went to a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm with ties to N2 America.

“Anyone who wants to donate is welcome to…If the Dem party wants to donate we surely will take it,” the group said. “But it seems that though many Dems have signed and silently support, some are afraid to stand up for open schools. Thankfully we have Dems in our group who are bold and brave and know that nothing about the recall is personal or about politics. It is about what is moral.”

Coalition members aimed to collect enough signatures to recall at least one school board member by the end of this school year, which concluded on Friday (June 11).

The coalition chose Cohen, Tholen and Omeish after watching school board meetings and determining only one member had a record of voting and speaking that prioritized reopening over other issues: Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, according to the group’s website.

So, members narrowed down their targets to the two members who were elected with the fewest number of votes — Cohen and Tholen.

“Based on this discovery, the voters in their districts would likely provide the most support for the removal effort,” according to the website.

When reached for comment, Tholen said she centers all her work and decision-making on what is best for students.

“I am busy at this point fulfilling my job as a school board member,” she said. “I am closing out this school year, celebrating our class of 2021, planning for summer programs and preparing for fall when we will welcome all students in person five days per week.”

Cohen, meanwhile, said that her “focus is, has been, and always will be ensuring our students have the best opportunity to be successful in our schools.” Read More

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