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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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Morning Notes

Driving by Reston on the Dulles Toll Road (via vantagehill/Flickr)

Police Investigate Offensive KKK Flyers — Bigotry-filled flyers aimed at the Fairfax County School Board were found earlier this week in the Springfield and Sully Districts, apparently distributed by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. School board members and local leaders, including Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and the president of the county’s NAACP chapter, denounced the flyers, which are under investigation by county police and the FBI. [Patch]

Carjacking Reported in Reston Town Center — A man with a gun told a person in the passenger seat of a 2004 Toyota Corolla to get out and drove away in the car. The incident occurred at 5:25 a.m. on June 12 in the 1800 block of Presidents Street. The victim was not injured, police say. [FCPD]

A History of Slavery in Herndon — Ahead of Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the U.S., Herndon Historical Society member Barbara Glakas delves into the lives of some past Herndon residents known to have held slaves. She notes that information about individual enslaved people is difficult to find due to the limited availability of written records. [Patch]

Reston Station Releases Showcase Video — Reston Station released a video yesterday (Thursday) showcasing the vision for the mixed-use development by the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station. The video breaks the area up into the Metro Plaza District, the Reston Row District that will be anchored by a JW Marriott hotel, the health-oriented West District, and the office-heavy Commerce District. [Reston Station/Facebook]

D.C. Area Sees More Hunger During Pandemic — “More families in Virginia and Maryland, and significantly more Latino families, were pushed into food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report on hunger in the D.C. area, which a nonprofit official called a ‘dramatic shift in the face of hunger.'” [WTOP]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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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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Fairfax County School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish addresses the reaction to her tweet criticizing Israel at the board’s May 20 meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Abrar Omeish doesn’t regret taking a stand on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if she could go back, she might have expressed her opinion a little differently.

The at-large Fairfax County School Board member sparked a heated local debate about one of the most contentious subjects in global politics last month when she recognized Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes a month of fasting, with a tweet decrying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid and colonization.”

As the board’s only Muslim member and the first Muslim woman elected to a school board anywhere in Virginia, Omeish says she felt a responsibility to speak up about the escalating violence that, at that time, had killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, and 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children.

Her May 13 tweet was part of the larger #EidwithPalestine hashtag that went emerged after Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem amid tensions over Palestinians being evicted from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“The idea was [Muslims] celebrate [Eid], but it’s bittersweet because we can celebrate while mourning and knowing that our Holy Land is being disrespected and people are being killed in their efforts to defend it,” Omeish told Reston Now. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate backlash.”

That backlash came from expected sources, given the school board’s decidedly Democratic makeup, as the Fairfax County Republican Committee chair called for Omeish’s resignation or removal and endorsed a parent-led campaign to recall her and other school board members that originally stemmed from frustrations with pandemic-related school closures in the fall.

However, the tweet also drew some criticism from colleagues and allies.

Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said in a tweet on May 14 that she was “aghast” and “appalled,” calling Omeish’s sentiments alienating to members of the community, including herself, and a setback to Fairfax County Public Schools’ equity-related efforts.

“Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen,” Meren said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington nixed plans to honor Omeish for supporting the recognition of additional religious holidays in the FCPS calendar. Four other school board members were still honored at the advocacy group’s annual membership meeting on May 20.

“The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel,” JCRC President Ronald Paul and Executive Director Ron Halber said in a joint statement on the decision. “…It is irresponsible of her to use her public platform to publicly advance controversial political views that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community.”

The letter went on to say that conversations about why JCRC found Omeish’s comment offensive were unproductive as she “continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony” by not removing the tweet or taking “affirmative steps to try to stem the vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks.”

For her part, Omeish says JCRC’s statement was “a complete mischaracterization” of how she approached their interactions, saying that she “got yelled at on the phone aggressively” and has “been threatened by JCRC multiple times” about her stance on Israel.

“They told me, if you don’t take this down, we will post a statement about you and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “They would say things like that to me, and for me, I’m like, look, I respectfully reject the threat. I’m not going to change my position because you’re scaring me.”

Halber and JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel disputed Omeish’s characterization of their interactions in a statement to Reston Now:

“We took no pleasure in having to rescind Ms. Omeish’s award. But there is no place for the divisive and offensive language she used in her May 13th Tweet or for her insulting insinuations about the JCRC. We never have and never would threaten anyone. Ms. Omeish stands out among the thousands of elected officials and interfaith leaders from every background who have successfully partnered with the JCRC in nearly a century of community-building. We hope Ms. Omeish undertakes the hard work necessary to understand how her hurtful language impacted members of the Jewish community, including our children in FCPS schools. For the benefit of the entire FCPS community, we hope to be able to work with Ms. Omeish in the future to pursue unity, equity, and mutual respect in Fairfax County.”

Omeish got another opportunity to engage with Jewish leaders, as she promised in a follow-up tweet, at a roundtable convened on May 23. Read More

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Following the county government’s lead, Fairfax County Public Schools will soon prohibit voluntary cooperation between staff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday (May 5) to create a “School Trust Policy.”

Fairfax County School Board members say the new policy will align with the Trust Policy that the county adopted in January, which prohibits employees from giving federal immigration authorities information about a person’s immigration or citizenship status unless required by law or court order.

With the vote, some board members will start working with FCPS staff to develop the policy for full adoption in the near future. According to the school board, the new policy will be designed to help build confidence with immigrant families.

“Even with our school system’s existing commitment to privacy protection, the need for a policy that rebuilds trust with immigrant families remains urgent,” Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch, who co-sponsored the measure, said. “Fairfax County took the necessary first step. Our school division will now join them by developing a policy that helps rebuild trust in our schools and keep families together  —  that is exactly what the School Trust Policy will do.”

Student information, including immigration status, is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, typically known by its acronym, FERPA. But advocates say ICE can easily access names, addresses, and birth dates to locate undocumented students and their parents.

“Because ICE takes advantage of privacy law deficiencies through data-mining of multiple public and quasi-public databases, the policies limit disclosure to other outside entities whose records could be accessed for immigration enforcement,” the immigrant rights group ACLU People Power Fairfax said. “Sensitive contact information may still be shared, but only when required to accomplish the agency’s mission.”

A recent survey from CASA, the largest immigrant advocacy group in the mid-Atlantic region, showed that Fairfax County has struggled to gain the immigrant community’s trust because members fear any contact with the police can lead to their deportation, Frisch says.

This fear keeps some families from accessing FCPS resources, such as meals, mental health services, parent workshops, and academic opportunities, according to School Board Chair and Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson, who joined Frisch in proposing the Trust Policy.

“To regain their confidence, we must demonstrate in all that we do that we are in the business of education and nothing more,” she said.

But the magnitude of the problem in FCPS is not easy to measure, as the Virginia Department of Education does not track immigration status.

What the school division does know is that, during the 2019-20 school year, nearly 27% of all students last fall were English Learners, and Frisch says that in 2018, a former FCPS student who was undocumented told the board that he did not report incidents of bullying and assaults because he feared being reported to ICE.

The forthcoming School Trust Policy will be essential to immigrant students’ educational success and general well-being, ACLU People Power Fairfax Lead Advocate Diane Burkley Alejandro says.

“Although federal privacy law provides protection for student information, there are numerous exceptions that put immigrant families at risk,” she said. “We applaud the School Board for recognizing that more must be done.”

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More than 20 schools have expressed interest in learning more about a statewide pilot to conduct on-site COVID-19 screening and testing for students and staff, Fairfax County Public Schools officials reported yesterday (Tuesday).

FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd told the school board during a work session that administrators will meet with staff at 21 schools on Thursday (April 22) to share more details about the Virginia Department of Health programs and determine which schools will ultimately participate.

In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance for kindergarten through 12th grade schools, VDH is working with the Virginia Department of Education to launch two pilot programs this month: one will provide schools with free antigen testing supplies that can return results within 15 minutes, and the other will support regular screenings to identify potential infections.

According to VDH, the diagnostic testing pilot is primarily intended to diagnose COVID-19 in teachers, staff, and students who are participating in-person instruction or are close contacts with someone who has been diagnosed and begin exhibiting symptoms.

The screening testing pilot, on the other hand, involves regularly screening a broad group of individuals to detect an infection before it spreads or become symptomatic. FCPS says it would conduct this pilot just with students, since staff have been able to get vaccinated.

Schools have the option to participate in one of the pilot programs, both of them, or neither. The pilots will launch this month and conclude on June 30.

“Our purpose for implementing these pilots this year is to gain information about what would be needed to stand it up next year, so this is really to get us prepared,” Boyd said.

In addition to participating in the pilot programs, FCPS is “actively pursuing” partners in the hopes of setting up targeted COVID-19 vaccine clinics for students that would be similar to the ones arranged with Inova for teachers and staff.

Since Fairfax County entered Phase 2 on Sunday (April 18), students 16 and older can now register for the vaccine, and FCPS is encouraging everyone who is eligible to find an appointment, according to a presentation that Superintendent Scott Brabrand delivered to the school board.

“We know that’s going to be critically important to returning to five days of instruction,” Boyd said of students getting vaccinated.

According to a report prepared for the school board, there were 470 reported COVID-19 cases among FCPS students and staff currently participating in in-person learning between Jan. 26 and April 13, but only 29 of those cases involved transmission within schools.

Four of the five outbreaks in that time period stemmed from athletic activities. Since school sports restarted in December, FCPS has documented 270 COVID-19 cases, including 61 cases likely spread through schools, and 16 outbreaks across 12 schools, all in basketball, wrestling, and football programs.

To date, there have been 1,397 reported cases among FCPS staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8. Read More

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Inundated with messages from staff and community members on proposed changes to the 2021-22 calendar, Fairfax County School Board members directed Superintendent Scott Brabrand to redraft it.

During a work session on Tuesday (Mar. 2), the board told staff to consider ways to add flexibility through floating holidays. They said the calendar should take into account legal considerations, instruction, student wellness and pay for support staff, as well as survey preferences, absenteeism data, transparency and equity.

The school board will vote on a final calendar on Mar. 18.

FCPS announced last June that the school board will consider two ways to add in four religious holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 7, 2021), Yom Kippur (Sept. 16, 2021), Diwali (Nov. 4, 2021), and Eid al Fitr (May 3, 2022).

FCPS drafted a third proposal without those holidays in February, as some board members expressed reservations about the potential disruptions they would create.

“Support staff have been very vocal in terms of what the impact on their work will be,” School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson, who represents the Mason District, said on Tuesday. “I’m very mindful of what this means for our families who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch. We also know that we’re coming out of the pandemic, and we have had a lot of impact in terms of continuity of learning.”

Anderson reported receiving 269 messages from support staff, estimating at least 100 more. Member-at-large Karen Keys-Gamarra also said she received more than 700 written responses on the calendar.

Meanwhile, 286 students have signed a petition, and 76 clergy and faith organizations have signed a letter initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) urging the board to add the holidays.

Responding to the news that FCPS would be developing a new calendar, the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia said in a statement that it was heartened to see the board reject the calendar that did not include the new holidays.

“We are optimistic that the next option proposed will be one that is forward-thinking — acknowledging and respecting the cultural and religious diversity of the staff and students of faith in the county, as well as the community at large,” Pozez JCC Executive Director Jeff Dannick and President Susan Kristol said.

Member organizations of a Religious Observances Task Force, which FCPS formed to advise the school system on supporting religious minorities, had “strenuously” objected to the third calendar draft, saying its proposal lacked transparency.

“Given where the community has been at, where the process is so far, what data has revealed, it goes without saying that we need to give this a deliberate look,” member-at-large Abrar Omeish said.

During the work session, FCPS staff presented data from the past five years indicating that the number of absent students and staff rises on days of religious or cultural significance that are not observed in the calendar. But some board members said it is not high enough to provide secular justification for closing schools.

“Such data is a flawed indicator in this situation. It is well-known that public school students and employees very often feel forced to attend work and classes on even their most sacred holidays, for fear of being penalized or academically disadvantaged,” the Religious Observances Task Force argued in its February letter.

The school system has not “done a good job honoring religious holidays for students and employees,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said. She told Brabrand that he and his team need to do better, and the board needs formal language to would hold him accountable.

Brabrand said FCPS can “do a better job” communicating what the division expects of children and staff on days of religious and cultural significance.

On top of concerns about pay, meals, and special education services, the proposed changes also carry legal ramifications. Schools can’t close for religious reasons unless it can be justified for secular reasons, such as absenteeism being too high for them to operate.

School board members suggested adding flexibility and protections without closing schools, such as “blackout days” — when students who choose to be absent would not be penalized — and “floating holidays” allowing staff to cash in a paid day off at any time. Some said the unenforceable guidelines for homework and test guidance around holy days should be turned into regulations.

Members also spelled out multiple areas where the calendar development process broke down, including the treatment of the Religious Observances Task Force.

For instance, the task force’s work was only included in a year-end ombudsman report, rather than being presented to the board on its own, which Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders says resulted in the findings becoming lost in the frenzy of Return to School planning.

The task force and other participants in the calendar development process had certain expectations for the calendar because of their advocacy, Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie K. Meren said.

Prince William and Arlington counties recently approved calendars with school closures on Eid, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Loudoun County approved a calendar with closures on Eid, Diwali and Yom Kippur.

Photo via Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images via FCPS

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As a tumultuous year of school closures and virtual learning inches toward a close, students in Fairfax County Public Schools say they are exhausted and feel forgotten by the administration and school board.

Their frustrations bubbled over during a school board meeting on Dec. 3. Two students took issue with recent headlines about upticks in failing grades and the board’s focus on how to resume in-person classes over how to improve the distance-learning experience.

John R. Lewis High School student Kimberly Boateng, who previously served as the school board’s student representative, chastised the board, saying its members have not demonstrated that they have turned the comments and criticisms she has submitted by letter, email and tweet into action.

She urged the county to do better, saying that she is tired of “aspirational goals” and wants the board and FCPS administrators to take concrete actions.

“I’m tired of the ‘we see you’ emails, the ‘we hear you’ tweets,” she said. “…Students are surrounded by so much grief, trauma, and death, and we are expected to continue on as if this is normal. This is not normal.”

As the board’s current student representative, South County High School student Nathan Onibudo said he is caught between knowing the extent of the county’s efforts to address the challenges caused by COVID-19 and experiencing the reality of student life.

“I see what’s possible and I see the hard work being put in,” he said. “[Many students] feel like somehow, they’re being forgotten even though all the conversations are about them.”

He told the school board that, for many students, the debate over whether they should learn virtually or in-person has become secondary to the struggle to survive each day.

“Students are simply suffering,” he said.

Boateng echoed that sentiment, saying that she feels unable to take a mental health day because it would bury her deeper under tasks.

“Students are sitting in front of their computer screens wondering when they’re going to catch a break, and the break never comes,” she said.

During an open comment period later in the school board meeting, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand and a handful of board members promised to take action.

“Nathan, I heard you. Our leadership team heard you, our principals heard you, our staff heard you,” Brabrand said. “Kimberly, I sat with you here last year. I heard you. We want your voice and your input as we continue through this year, and we will use your recommendations to make the changes necessary to be sure students are heard, listened to, respected, valued.”

Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett Sanders noted the board is also hearing about the impact of the pandemic on the county’s school children from parents, parent-teacher associations, neighbors, and relatives.

Springfield District School Board Member Laura Jane Cohen told the students that the board is “trying to get better answers.”

“I know sometimes it rings hollow, but please, hang in there and just know that we’re trying to make things better right now,” Cohen said.

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Driven by the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, 8,959 students left Fairfax County Public Schools this school year with elementary school students, particularly kindergarteners, representing the most withdrawals.

About 87% of the students who left are in elementary school, and of those, 2,208 students would be kindergarteners, according to a Membership Trends Report presented to FCPS School Board members last Wednesday (Nov. 4). This report is used to inform the school board’s capital improvements planning process.

Transfer rates to other public schools in Virginia and the U.S. are on par with previous years, but FCPS has seen new spikes in students who transferred to private schools in Fairfax County or who switched to homeschooling.

“Right now, this is an unprecedented time, and it is reflected in the data we have,” Jeffrey Platenberg, the FCPS assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation services, said. “We have a lot going on and we don’t know how to proceed forward until we get this pandemic under control. To do anything during this time might not be recommended by the wisest of folks, because the data reflects such a marked difference from last year.”

If the dip in enrollment is temporary, FCPS will see a bubble in kindergarten next year that will roll through Fairfax County for the next 12 years, according to Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

“You have to do some things differently in our facilities for the next decade,” he said.

School board members and FCPS staff are already bracing for kindergarten enrollment to surge both when FCPS welcomes them back to school on Nov. 16 and for the next academic year starting in the fall of 2021.

That influx is a source of concern for school principals, Springfield District School Board member Laura Cohen says.

“Short-term and long-term kindergarten problems, how are we going to solve this?” Cohen asked.

Brabrand said FCPS is “overstaffed in kindergarten” because it acquired staff in the spring, when attendance had not yet taken a hit, rather than in late summer, when the hiring pool is much smaller.

“I know people don’t want to hear the ‘t-word’ of trailers, but we’re going to have some space challenges at those schools,” he said.

The remaining membership decreases were more modest, with 217 middle school students, 392 high school students, 356 center and alternative program students, and 165 students in other programs.

Yearly, FCPS sees thousands of students leave for public schools in other states, but the number of students who instead chose to homeschool or attend a private religious or secular school in the county this year is out of the ordinary.

Nearly 1,900 left to be homeschooled this year, up from 264 last year. About 1,100 left for a private religious school in Fairfax County, and 713 for a non-religious private school, up from 296 and 237 last year, respectively.

“When you look at those who have chosen [private schools], there is a significant increase over the prior year,” Platenberg said. “That’s pretty informing why families chose to withdraw from FCPS.”

Of the five FCPS regions, the largest withdrawal rates come from Region One, which has schools in Herndon, Reston, Vienna, and the Langley area of McLean, and Region Three, which encompasses the area south of the city of Alexandria.

“I’m concerned when I look at some of these numbers at our high school level,” At-Large School Board Member Rachna Sizmore Heizer said.

She said schools with high rates of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals are seeing higher enrollment drops from last year to this year. She asked staff whether these changes are due to students not logging in and dropping out.

“We really are tracking that very carefully,” Deputy Superintendent Francis Ivey said.

This is not the first time schools with higher levels of families below federal poverty lines have been impacted by current events, Platenberg said.

“We’ve seen those trends with economic changes and changes in administrations, lags and shifts that occur,” he said.

Photo via FCPS

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Tuesday Morning Notes

Reston Named Hottest Neighborhood for Home Sales –Reston was named one of the hottest neighborhoods in the greater Washington area. The community came in at number 15, with a median sale price of $561,200, a roughly eight percent change over 2019. [Washington Business Journal]

Fairfax County Underwater Search Practice at Lake Newport Pool  Reston Association is working with the Fairfax County Police Department’s underwater search and recovery unit for training at the pool. FCPD conducts similar training about once a month. [Reston Today]

School Board to Discuss Metrics for Reopening — Fairfax County Public Schools’ Superintendent Scott Brabrand will offer update his team’s development of health and operational metrics to determine when in-person instruction will resume. The meeting begins today (Tuesday) at 4 p.m. [FCPS]

Photo via Marjorie Copson

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Updated at 10:45 a.m. — Corrects reference to Lake Braddock Secondary School.

As the Fairfax County public school system prepares for the fall, some teachers’ unions are expressing concern about how safe in-person learning might be during the pandemic.

To accommodate both families and teachers, FCPS asked both groups to fill out a form by July 10, stating whether they would prefer to stick with a distance learning plan or return to the classroom. After this date, many teachers will find out if they will be required to return or stay at home.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and Fairfax Education Association released a press release calling for increased transparency and a clearly outlined health plan for reopening.

Though teachers are allowed to request a full-time remote-learning position, this cannot be guaranteed according to the current plan.

“Teacher placements will be contingent upon student enrollment numbers in the online program; teacher placement decisions will be tiered by individual teacher’s medical need, family medical need, and preference,” FCPS documents said.

Additionally, teachers with medical conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19 will be given “flexible leave and telework assignments,” the plan said.

David Walrod, who teaches 7th grade at Lake Braddock Secondary School, said as a member of the teacher’s union that he wishes teachers would get of choice of whether or not they work remotely.

“Personally I’m hoping that I get a remote position because personally I don’t feel that they will be able to keep schools as safe as they think they are,” he said, adding that he is also concerned for his own young daughter.

“Our educators are overwhelmingly not comfortable returning to schools. They fear for their lives, the lives of their students and the lives of their families,” Tina Williams, the president of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said in the press release.

At the school board meeting last Tuesday (June 23), the board members discussed various concerns and options for reopening.

Melanie Meren, the Hunter Mill District representative on the board, spoke on behalf of teachers during the meeting. “We cannot skimp on [personal protective equipment],” she said. “We need to advocate for that if we don’t have the funds.”

Not everyone will be satisfied with whatever is ultimately decided, Karl Frisch, who represents the Providence District, told his fellow board members.

Frisch said that he’s spent almost 100 hours with local families, community members and stakeholders discussing options for the upcoming school year. “There is no perfect solution to this problem,” he said. “We must consider any contingency that may come and meet us.”

FCPS officials have said that input from local health and state health officials will inform reopening plans.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board earlier this month that he is worried about the realities of social distancing in schools and wants to prevent staff from resigning over safety concerns.

FCFT’s press release called for teachers and educators in the county to speak up about their concerns.

Walrod said that he hopes Fairfax County will adopt a new model like the one for a school district in Pennsylvania where all students and staff will be working and learning remotely for 75 days into the school year until the school board members have a clearer understanding of COVID-19.

Walrod said that there is a chance parents will overwhelmingly want their kids to take advantage of distance learning so there will be less of a demand for in-person lessons.

Kimberly Adams, the president of the Fairfax Education Association, said in a press release that the group is advocating for remote learning until a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is available.

“All staff should be provided the ability to continue virtual instruction as long as there is community spread of this virus,” Adams said. “We will continue to make every possible effort to assist FCPS in developing a plan that keeps health and safety first.”

Photo courtesy Dan Dennis on Unsplash

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Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) unveiled its proposed fiscal year 2021-25 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) last week.

In November, Fairfax County voters approved a $360 million school bond referendum that includes $2 million in planning funds for a new “Silver Line elementary school,” along with other construction and renovation projects.

“Funds approved in the 2019 School Bond Referendum and previous referenda will address approximately $500 million of the five-year requirement, leaving a balance of approximately $573 million unfunded,” according to FCPS.

For the new Silver Line elementary school, permitting would happen in FY 2022, with permitting in FY 2023 and construction from FY 2024-2026, according to the CIP draft.

The revised budget estimates the Silver Line elementary school will cost $39.5 million.

“Anticipation of the completion of the Silver Line Metro has already spurred higher density residential growth along that corridor which may result in an increase in students within FCPS,” according to the CIP draft.

Along with the Silver Line school, the proposal addresses a new elementary school in the northwest area of the county to address current overcrowding in the McNair Elementary school area, with a projected budget of $34.8 million.

In addition to the Silver Line school, the CIP also includes information on a new high school that would provide relief to high schools in Centreville, Chantilly, Herndon, Oakton, South Lakes, and Westfield areas.

The new high school is projected to cost $157 million.

A public hearing will be held on the CIP on Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. at Jackson Middle School (3020 Gallows Road), followed by a school board work session on it on Jan. 13. A vote on the CIP is scheduled to take place on Jan. 23.

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