In a divisive decision, the Fairfax County School Board voted late last week to recognize some religious holidays in the next school year, but fell short of giving students a day off on those days.

Next year’s academic year will not give students a day off on 15 religious observances, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid, and Diwali. In what proponents described as a middle-ground option, the holidays would be recognized as special days during which tests, quizzes, field trips, and other events would not be scheduled.

Overall, students would receive an allowance of 16 hours to make up for any religious or cultural reasons.

The following religious and cultural observance will be observed; Eid al-Adha, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Día de los Muertos, Diwali, Bodhi Day, Three Kings Day/Epiphany, Orthodox Christmas, Orthodox Epiphany, Lunar New Year, Ramadan, Good Friday, Theravada, Orthodox Good Friday/Last Night of Passover and Eid al-Fitr. The days were selected based on absentee rates over the last five years.

Employees will also be given up to 16 hours of any time missed for religious and cultural observances.

School board chair Ricardy Anderson touted the move as one that favors “equity and inclusivity.”

“It aims to center equity by elevating our systems’ respect for religious and cultural observances. While this final calendar for 2021-22 may not align with the goals of everyone in Fairfax County, it recognizes all religious and cultural observances where Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has seen above-average absences over the last five years,” Anderson wrote in a statement.

In a letter to the FCPS community, Superintendent Scott Brabrand recognized that the discussion surrounding this issue was divisive and riled by faith organizations and parents.

“We acknowledge that while this has been a challenging discussion, FCPS is committed to equity for all of its students and staff. Moving forward, FCPS will establish a calendar development process that allows the School Board to identify clear criteria and priorities for the calendar; defines the roles of staff, Board, and community members; and creates a robust community engagement process that outlines how and where feedback will be solicited and shared with the Board,” Brabrand said.

But the decision drew concern from many local and area religious groups. In a joint statement, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples of Metropolitan Washington, Durga Temple of Virginia, Hindu American Foundation, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, McLean Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, and Temple Rodef Shalom wrote that the school board’s attempt to divide religious groups backfired.

“While the school board has sought to divide us further, we have coalesced around this issue, strengthening our commitment to one another and to the equity of religious minority groups in Fairfax County. We will continue to hold the FCPS School Board and Administration accountable to ensure that our communities are not disadvantaged by the decisions taken today,” the statement reads. 

The new rules will go into effect when the school year begins on July 1. The board also voted to decouple Good Friday from Spring Break.

Photo via FCPS

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This year’s graduating classes may get to celebrate their achievements with socially-distanced graduation ceremonies.

Earlier this week, Gov. Ralph Northam released preliminary guidance for graduation ceremonies at high schools and universities this spring and summer.

“We are releasing this guidance early to allow schools to begin planning for this year’s events,” Northam said Wednesday in a statement. “While graduation and commencement ceremonies will still be different than they were in the past, this is a tremendous step forward for all of our schools, our graduates, and their families.”

Northam wants all outdoor ceremonies to be capped at 5,000 people or 30 percent of venue capacity.

Indoors events are limited to 500 people or 30 percent of the venue capacity. All attendees must wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines to the extent possible.

Seating areas should be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing, among other recommendations pitched by Northam.

Updated guidance is expected to be released as part of a forthcoming executive order.

The guidance comes as Fairfax County Public Schools prepares for a return to five days of in-person classes in the fall. Since Feb. 16, more than 98,000 students and staff members have resumed in-person classes.

More than two-thirds of the state’s public school teachers and staff have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The statewide positivity rate for COVID-19 also continues to fall, currently standing at 5.4 percent.

Last year, some students celebrated with car parades, while other schools returned to virtual celebrations or graduate photo opportunities.

With this in mind, we’d love to know what you think about how and if in-person graduation ceremonies should resume this year. Let us know in the poll below.

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Fairfax County Public School students will attend in-person classes five days a week when the new academic year starts this fall, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand pledged yesterday (Tuesday) at a school board work session.

The commitment came on the same day that FCPS welcomed third and sixth-grade students back into classrooms. This was the final cohort to be phased into hybrid learning, where students who choose to can receive two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction.

Since FCPS initiated its Return to School plan on Feb. 16, more than 98,000 students and staff members have resumed in-person classes. That number will exceed 109,000 students when the transition finishes this Thursday (March 19), according to Brabrand.

Brabrand told the school board that a combination of low levels of reported COVID-19 transmission in schools, declining case rates in the county as a whole, accelerating vaccination efforts, and new research on social distancing in schools gave FCPS officials the confidence to plan to begin the upcoming 2021-2022 school year with full-time in-person classes.

“We have shown that we can return our students and staff to our buildings in a way that is safe and steady,” Brabrand said. “We are confident that we can deliver on a five-day return for all students in the fall, knowing that, while we can adapt to any situation, in-person learning really is the best option for our students and staff.”

According to a presentation by FCPS staff, 0.2% of 86,526 students and staff expected to return to in-person classes have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 26, and only 0.02% reported being infected due to transmission in schools.

As of Tuesday, FCPS had recorded 1,107 cases among students, staff, and visitors since Sept. 8.

FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd reported that the “overwhelming majority” of employees have now been vaccinated, and the school system is working with partners like the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova to get the vaccine to the remaining individuals.

FCPS also anticipates having in-person graduation ceremonies for this year’s high school seniors, though rules for prom, all-night graduation parties, and other social gatherings will likely be more stringent.

Brabrand said Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Health are expected to issue guidance for school districts before April.

With all grade levels now in hybrid learning, FCPS has started to plan for summer school, which will take place in person from late June to early August at all schools for over 40,000 students — 10 times the usual summer school attendance, according to FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio.

Presidio says schools will coordinate enrollment in summer programs with individual families “based on identified student need” in terms of both academic and social-emotional factors.

FCPS also plans to provide up to four days of in-person classes starting after spring break to students who have been struggling the most this year, particularly students with disabilities and English-language learners.

To ensure there is room for those students, anyone who opted for hybrid learning must be in attendance by March 26, the day before spring break begins, or they could be reverted to all-virtual classes.

“If students have registered to attend in-person, we need them to do so on a regular basis,” Presidio said. “It’s really important, because those seats and the capacity in our buildings really is at a premium.”

Even if social distancing guidelines shrink from six feet to three feet, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering, Brabrand cautioned that expanding in-person learning will carry challenges, from ensuring there is adequate space and staffing to convincing skeptical families that schools can operate safely with mitigation measures in place.

He told the school board that limited virtual learning will still be available on a more case-by-case basis, but FCPS believes that most students need in-person classes to have the best chance at being successful in school.

“We have an equity imperative to have all of our students back in person in the 2021-22 school year who don’t otherwise have specific health conditions that would prevent them from returning in the fall,” Brabrand said.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott, slides via FCPS

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Monday Morning Notes

Silver Line Extension Could Open Early Next Year — Phase two of the Silver Line is expected to open in early 2022, according to Metro’s general manager. The announcement comes after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said it will be ready to turn the project over to Metro by Labor Day weekend. [WJLA]

County Hires Health Care Support — The county is hiring substitute and relief counselors as part of its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and administer vaccines. [Fairfax County Government]

More Solar Panels Coming to County Schools — The Fairfax County School Board voted to install solar panels on a number of school buildings in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions and improve efficiency. The school system plans to begin the project at three schools and eventually phase out to 87 sites. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Public Hearings on Metro Budget Begin — A number of budget hearings begins this week. Metro is facing a major budget shortfall due to a dip in ridership. [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]

Northam Reflects on One Year of COVID-19Families, friends and neighbors are mourning the more than 9,000 Virginians who died in the coronavirus pandemic over the past year, Gov. Ralph Northam said Sunday in a video. Many others have lost jobs, income, a sense of security and knowing what would happen next as lockdowns and the virus turned life upside down. [Reston Patch]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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The Fairfax County School Board unanimously adopted an advertised Fiscal Year 2022 budget for the county public school system when it met last Thursday (Feb. 18).

The $3.2 billion budget includes a $60.3 million increase in Fairfax County Public Schools’ request for funding from the county board of supervisors to increase employee compensation rates by 3%, a significant change from what FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand proposed in January.

Anticipating a tough financial year due to the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brabrand had originally proposed freezing staff salaries aside from $3 million to complete a three-year push to bring the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants up to 50% of the salary scale for teachers who have bachelor’s degrees.

Improving employee compensation has been a priority of the school board in recent years, as the board seeks to restore over $70 million and nearly 2,700 positions that have been cut since 2008, according to Lee District Representative Tamara Derenak-Kaufax.

“As a board, we must be committed to making certain we are hiring and retaining the best and brightest employees to teach our children, to counsel our children, to transport our children, to feed our children, and to ensure that their social and emotional needs are being met,” Derenak-Kaufax said. “In order to do so, we must be competitive with our surrounding jurisdictions.”

On top of the requested county transfer funds, FCPS projects that it could receive an additional $13.4 million in state revenue to cover the compensation increases based on a proposed budget from the Virginia State Senate that would provide a 3% salary bump for public school educators.

When approving the advertised budget, the school board also amended Brabrand’s proposed budget to include an additional $1.4 million to hire instructional coaches at six Title I elementary schools and create pay parity for elementary school principals and assistant principals.

Overall, the FY 2022 advertised budget seeks to increase FCPS funding by 2.4%, or $75.5 million, compared to the school system’s approved FY 2021 budget.

In addition to employee compensation, the increase provides for expanded preschool special education classes, retirement rate increases and rising health care costs, and support for student needs related to the pandemic, according to FCPS.

The budget also includes $4.9 million and 50 staff positions for English as a Second Language programs at the elementary school level, along with $500,000 and three positions for a collective bargaining team after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 allowing localities to recognize collective bargaining rights for public employees starting on May 1.

Karen Corbett-Sanders, who represents Mount Vernon District on the Fairfax County School Board, noted that the advertised FY 2022 budget does not include money for possible summer school programming, which will instead come from federal COVID-19 relief funds that Congress approved in December.

“We recognize that the past year has been incredibly difficult for our community,” Brabrand said. “This budget is designed to bring hope to students, their families and our staff by providing the resources each of them needs to help recognize and support all their extraordinary contributions during this pandemic.”

While not included in the advertised budget, the school board also directed Brabrand to identify funds to create positions for a neuro-diversity specialist and a trauma-informed social emotional learning specialist, roles that are, respectively, intended to provide support for students with disabilities and address students’ mental health needs.

At-large member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, who was a disability rights advocate before being elected to the school board in 2019, says having a neuro-diversity specialist could be “transformative” in helping eliminate disparities in academic achievement and discipline for students with disabilities.

“A neurodiversity-oriented approach, with its focus on student strengths, positive teacher expectations, and inclusion of the lived norms of students with disabilities within the norms of classrooms, can improve outcomes for students with disabilities and set them up for success after they leave FCPS,” Sizemore Heizer said.

County Executive Bryan Hill is scheduled to present his proposed FY 2022 budget to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors tomorrow (Tuesday). The school board will present its advertised budget to the Board of Supervisors on Apr. 13 and adopt an approved FY 2022 budget on May 20.

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Local closures are in effect today as snow continues to fall in the Reston area today.

A Winter Storm Warning is in effect through early Friday morning, with the possibility of three to six inches o of snow and one-tenth t one-quarter inch of ice is also expected.

Fairfax County government offices and courts are closed today and all employees have been given emergency leave.

The Fairfax Connector will operate a on holiday weekend service schedule. If road conditions get worse, service may be reduced further.

All Fairfax County Public Schools and central officers are also closed today. In-person and virtual learning is also canceled.

Today’s school board meeting will take place virtually at 7 p.m.

Here’s more from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation on recent changes.

Routes 231232335351393394395396 422432461494495556585599624634697698699722724 and 985, which will not operate 

Route 980 will run every 12-15 minutes instead of every 6-8 minutes.

Passengers are encouraged to check the status of routes online before heading to a bus stop. If a bus is on detour, the county’s BusTracker will not reflect real-time estimated arrival information.

The county has also cancelled all COVID-19 vaccine clinics administered directly the Fairfax County Health Department for today. Residents will receive an email with a re-registration link for the upcoming week.

Reston Association’s member services office is also closed for appointments today. Members can call or email RA for more information.

Photo by Marjorie Copson

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Barring an abrupt change in plans, Fairfax County Public Schools students will start returning to school buildings next week for the first time since classes resumed after winter break in January.

The Fairfax County School Board approved a new Return to School timeline last Tuesday (Feb. 2) that lets 8,000 students in special education and career and technical education programs get two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction per week starting on Feb. 16. All FCPS students will be phased into the hybrid learning model by Mar. 16, though students who choose to stay all-virtual can do so.

The school board’s decision came three days before Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday (Feb. 5) that all school divisions in Virginia must offer families some form of in-person learning option by Mar. 16, citing the need to prevent learning losses.

An FCPS report released in November found an uptick in failing grades during the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, particularly for students with disabilities and English-language learners, and research from the CDC suggests schools can deliver in-person instruction safely as long as mitigation protocols are followed, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

With COVID-19 cases declining in Fairfax County recently and FCPS staff prioritized for vaccinations, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand expressed confidence last week that the division can pull of a successful return to in-person learning.

However, FCPS officials also said that transporting students will be a challenge due to the inability to ensure enough spacing on buses, and employees raised concerns in the past through the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers about inadequate implementation and enforcement of mitigation measures. FCPS has recorded 939 COVID-19 cases among staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8.

Do you think FCPS is ready to restart in-person learning? Should the district move faster to expand in-person learning, or should it take a more cautious approach? Should schools be looking to resume in-person instruction at all?

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Monday Morning Notes

Local Podcast Explores ‘Gray Love’ — Reston resident Laura stasis is returning with the second season her podcast for people over the age of 50. The podcast is called Dating While Gray. [Reston Patch]

True Food Kitchen On Track for April Opening — The business is still on track for an April opening in Reston Town Center. It will be located at 11901 Democracy Drive. [The Burn]

Delayed Opening for Inova Vaccine Clinic — Because of yesterday’s wintry mix, Inova’s vaccination center is planning for a delayed opening today. All canceled appointments will be honored. [Inova]

School Board Approves Capital Improvement Program — The Fairfax County School Board approved the capital improvement program for FY2022-2026. The program includes partial funding for the Silver Line Elementary School. [FCPS]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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A former Oakton High School student is seeking a new trial in her lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board involving a sexual assault that occurred on a school band trip in 2017.

Attorneys representing the plaintiff, known as Jane Doe, and the school board delivered oral arguments to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remotely on Monday (Jan. 25).

According to Public Justice, the nonprofit representing the plaintiff and her family, Jane Doe — then a junior — and another bandmate — then a senior — were sitting next to each other on a bus when he touched her without her consent.

Filed in 2018, the nonprofit’s original complaint alleged that administrators and employees failed to take meaningful and appropriate action. According to the complaint, administrators threatened to discipline her and discouraged her from reporting the assault to police or taking legal action.

In August 2019, a jury with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria found that Jane Doe was sexually harassed and that the experience negatively impacted her education. But the jury did not find the Fairfax County School Board could be held liable for the deprivation of her education as a result of her assault.

The jury determined that the school board did not have “actual knowledge” about the assault, though one juror later said there was confusion over the term’s definition. As a result, the jury did not discuss the final question in the case, which asked whether the school board acted with deliberate indifference toward Doe’s complaint.

FCPS’s liability, which appears to hinge on the extent to which school officials knew an assault had taken place and whether they took sufficient action to address the plaintiff’s concerns, is now being relitigated.

“There may be hard actual knowledge cases, but this isn’t one of them. This family did all they could to put the school on notice,” Public Justice attorney Alexandra Brodsky said in her argument on Monday. “This court should remand a new trial so a jury can reach, for the first time, the question of whether the school did enough.”

Stuart Raphael, the attorney for the school board, argued that the board did not have “actual knowledge” because Doe — in a conversation with Fairfax County Public Schools Director of Student Services Jennifer Hogan — did not describe her experience as sexual assault or nonconsensual. He added that Doe was “incredulous” when another administrator asked if she would press charges.

He argued that these facts, as well as inconsistencies between the stories that reached administrators, support the jury’s initial finding that the school board had no “actual knowledge” of the sexual assault.

“It cannot be that a school administrator’s failure to understand what constitutes sexual harassment is an absolute bar to liability,” Brodsky said.  “That’s why this court and others have treated a failure to categorize reports of sexual harassment as evidence of a deficient response.”

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The Fairfax County School Board’s proposed Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Fairfax County Public Schools will not include any major adjustments or immediate big-ticket spending.

Released on Dec. 17, the proposed CIP – which sets short-term priorities for school renovations, capacity enhancements, and other infrastructure projects – remains largely the same as last year’s plan, as the uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic made FCPS officials wary of making any significant new commitments.

A virtual public hearing is planned for 7 p.m. today.

FCPS Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg said described the current times as “daunting.”

“We don’t want to do anything that’ll impact our facilities or our staffing, especially with the inoculation coming, the vaccines, and then, next year, [we want to] put ourselves in a position to get back to whatever the new normal might be.”

The ongoing renovation at Langstone Hughes Middle School, which was fully funded by voter-approved bonds in 2015 and 2017, is expected to be completed in $FY2022. Once completed, the school, which first opened in 1980, will include modern amenities and an addition of 53,900 square feet. The project is expected to cost roughly $52 million.

The CIP includes $39 million for a school to manage additional growth expected to be brought on by phase two of the Silver Line. A location has not yet been determined, but the project is fully funded for planning-related costs.

Roughly $42 million is proposed for Herndon Elementary School, 52 million for Hughes Elementary School, and 106 million for the ongoing renovation of and Herndon High School, which will be completed this year.

Because students have mostly been learning virtually, FCPS staff were unable to include data on the capacity utilization of individual facilities for this school year in the CIP. Fluctuating attendance also precluded staff from making five-year projections for future student enrollment.

According to a presentation that Platenberg gave to the school board on Tuesday (Jan. 5), FCPS shed 8,338 students between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. The losses predominately came at the elementary school level, which saw a drop in membership of 7,729 students.

Because FCPS is not adding any new projects with the proposed CIP, the school system will be able to focus on the many needs that it has already identified, Platenberg says.

Overall, the proposed CIP carries a five-year requirement of $1.1 billion. While only $314.8 million of that is currently covered, Platenberg says the unfunded commitment should be addressed by future bond referendums.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the CIP on Feb. 4.

Images via FCPS

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Fairfax County Public Schools students will not start returning to in-person learning next week as planned.

After getting an update on local COVID-19 trends last night (Tuesday), the Fairfax County School Board gave its support to FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s suggestion that the school system delay bringing students back into buildings until February at the earliest.

“We can take some of the feedback today…and take a pause right now and come back with some more information about vaccinations and a revised timeline with input from our principals and our teachers,” Brabrand said.

All students are currently learning virtually after a two-week winter break, but FCPS had hoped to restart in-person instruction for some students in special education and career and technical programs on Jan. 12.

Other students were scheduled to follow in phases over the next month, with the last group of middle and high school students starting hybrid in-person learning on Feb. 9.

However, with COVID-19 surging in Fairfax County and vaccines not yet rolling out to school employees, school board members, principals, and teachers’ unions expressed concern that it would be unsafe for both students and workers to restart in-person learning.

Virginia Department of Health data shows that Fairfax County has exceeded multiple thresholds established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for determining the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

As of today, the county is averaging 520.6 new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, and the 14-day testing positivity rate is at 13%. The number of new cases per 100,000 people in the past week is up 26.2% compared with the previous week.

In addition, FCPS has recorded 649 COVID-19 cases among employees, students, and visitors since Sept. 8. Brabrand told the school board that there have been 20 outbreaks in school facilities, even though only 11,810 students and staff have participated in in-person instruction this school year.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which represents FCPS educators and staff, has pointed to those case rates as evidence that the school system has not adequately implemented mitigation measures like social distancing and face masks that would reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“We are deeply concerned that FCPS is rushing to reopen schools while COVID-19 cases are surging like never before,” FCFT President Tina Williams said in a statement issued prior to last night’s school board meeting. “We all want nothing more than for students and staff to return to school for face-to-face instruction, but right now, it just is not safe.”

Brabrand told the school board that he will bring a presentation reevaluating how FCPS should proceed with its Return to School plan on Feb. 2.

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Fairfax County Public Schools could start expanding in-person learning to more students again in January.

Under a draft timeline that FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand presented to the county school board last night (Thursday), all students will learn virtually for the first week after winter break, which lasts from Dec. 21 through Jan. 3.

Students who opt for hybrid in-person/virtual learning would then begin returning to school buildings on Jan. 12, starting with five cohorts that encompass pre-K and kindergarten students, as well as students in special education, English learners, and other specialized programs.

Elementary school students will be phased in, two grades at a time, between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Middle and high school students have been split in two groups, with seventh, ninth, and 12th graders returning on Jan. 26, and eighth, 10th, and 11th graders returning on Feb. 2.

“This plan is contingent on health and operational metrics being met,” Brabrand emphasized. “We’ll provide the board an update on this plan on Jan. 5 at our next monthly return-to-school work session and as needed as we get closer to the target dates for the groups.”

During the school board work session, Brabrand also laid out plans for a revised bell schedule to accommodate the increased time and reduced capacity needed to transport students to school by bus, a change that he acknowledged will present challenges for some families and employees.

“However, it is the only way we can return all of our grade levels back to in-person following health and safety guidance,” he said.

To address concerns about students falling behind academically while learning online, FCPS will loosen its grading policies and implement a system of interventions to give more individualized support to students who are struggling. English learners and special education students will also receive targeted support, including teacher-family conferences and regular check-ins.

Brabrand’s Dec. 10 presentation represents represent FCPS’s first concrete effort to resume a process that began on Oct. 5 but was suspended on Nov. 16 after Fairfax County’s COVID-19 caseload exceeded established thresholds for phasing students back into in-person learning.

Whether the new Return to School plan will actually come to fruition as proposed remains to be seen, as the Fairfax Health District continues to report record levels of COVID-19 transmission.

Brabrand alerted the school board that about 4,100 students are on track to revert back to all-virtual learning on Dec. 14, because tomorrow could mark the seventh day in a row where the county averages more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people and has more than 10% COVID-19 tests come back positive over a two-week span.

The superintendent said that FCPS has already sent letters to families whose students will be affected letting them know that a return to virtual learning could happen, though it will be confirmed on Saturday.

School officials have stressed the importance of mitigation strategies, such as social distancing and face mask requirements, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread and avoid the need to return all students to distance learning. FCPS announced earlier this week that it is assembling safety teams to monitor adherence to public health protocols at schools that have reopened.

However, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers reported yesterday that it had recorded 72 safety violations since Oct. 23 through an online safety violation tracker. Members also reported in a survey conducted by the labor union that they have not seen consistent use of masks, social distancing, respiratory etiquette, and proper cleaning and disinfecting practices.

Since Sept. 8, FCPS has recorded 454 COVID-19 cases out of 12,104 in-person students and staff, a more than 3% positivity rate.

The FCFT argues that FCPS should transition all students and staff to virtual instruction until Fairfax County’s COVID-19 positivity rate drops below 5% and all of its standards for a safe reopening are met.

“FCPS’ introduction of a ‘mitigation strategies’ metric is important, but should not be prioritized over community spread of COVID-19,” FCFT President Tina Williams said in a statement. “…Our schools are part of our community and if COVID is spreading in our community, that means it is spreading in our schools.”

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Fairfax County Public School administrators are looking to write a new policy that will ban secluding children across the division by 2023.

The new policy governing when and how children can be restrained or secluded would also require administrators to contact parents the day of an incident and to review data every quarter. After being restrained or put in a room alone, students would meet with a trusted staff member who could provide positive supports.

“We are delighted that FCPS recognizes that they were in shocking non-compliance with federal regulations,” Fairfax County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association President Michelle Cades told Tysons Reporter. “We are really optimistic that reporting is going to improve and that there is going to be more transparency.”

According to the policy, starting in 2021, seclusion will only be allowed at Burke School and Key and Kilmer Centers.

“We’re requesting that it be prohibited in 99% of schools now, but 100% is our desire, 100% is our goal,” Assistant Superintendent of the Special Services Department Michelle Boyd said in a work session last week.

The policy would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and includes some clauses that respond to feedback from parents and other stakeholders. FCPS will hold a public hearing on the new policy on Friday.

These changes come one year after a 2019 WAMU investigation found hundreds of instances of restraint and seclusion in FCPS, even though the school division had not reported a single incident to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for 10 years.

“We have to make sure that people feel confident, not just in the new policy, but that we are implementing the data collection with fidelity,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said during a Dec. 1 work session. “We have to acknowledge that for too many years, we reported no information, as did other school districts, and it was wrong.”

At-Large School Board Representative Abrar Omeish questioned what data FCPS is relying on to be confident that a new restraint and seclusion policy will be implemented properly.

“I worry about relying on this information, when we have reason to believe that it is not reliable,” she said. “We should imagine the worst-case scenario and put in place the checks that are going to hold us accountable to make sure we’re not wronging kids in the process.”

The school board and community members both raised concerns about an initial draft of the policy that was released prior to the Dec. 1 work session. That version gave a window for notifying parents of two school days, did not prohibit supine restraints (where the child is lying face-up on the ground), and had no explicit mention of eventually banning seclusion at all schools.

SEPTA criticized the initial proposal as failing to meet state regulations and best practices, saying that it “appears to discriminate against students with disabilities.”

“Given [the county’s] history, the public and the special education community of Fairfax County do not have faith that FCPS will act with integrity and transparency in any use of restraint or seclusion,” SEPTA said in a statement.

School board members argued that same-day notification in particular should be a priority.

“I can’t find that it is tenable that this school system is capable of notifying parents when there is a discipline issue or a health issue, but we’re not going to notify if their child has been restrained or secluded,” Braddock District School Board Member McLaughlin said.

The most recent draft of the proposed policy was released on Dec. 4 and incorporates some of the school board’s requested changes, including the same-day notification requirement and a ban on supine and prone restraints.

“They went back and, it looks like, put a lot more thought and consideration into how the regulations will be implemented here in Fairfax,” Cades said. “[Supine and prone restraints], where you have multiple people forcibly holding a child down on the floor, are more dangerous. You have a much greater likelihood of injury or death.”

Omeish said during the school board’s Dec. 3 meeting that she will likely be bringing a motion to “ban seclusion and to replace the rooms with sensory rooms.”

SEPTA is encouraging the community to register to speak at the public hearing. The group is facilitating anonymous participation ahead of the public meeting, where volunteers could read testimonies from parents.

Photo via FCPS

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Fairfax County Public Schools administrators reaffirmed their commitment to bringing more students back for in-person learning during a Fairfax County School Board work session last night (Thursday), despite increasing levels of COVID-19 transmission in Northern Virginia.

After introducing more than 8,000 students to hybrid learning – which consists of two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction – over the past month, FCPS is preparing to welcome an additional 6,800 students back into classrooms on Nov. 17, Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board.

Under a newly revised timeline, another cohort of approximately 13,500 students, including first and second-graders as well as students with disabilities, will start hybrid learning on Dec. 8, a week later than previously proposed.

Students in grades three to six will now be phased in on Jan. 12 instead of Jan. 4. Middle and high school students are still scheduled to return on Jan. 26.

“As we make preparations for additional students and staff to return, we are very mindful of the national, state, and local COVID trends,” Brabrand said. “COVID remains a fluid situation, and I want to emphasize these are my recommendations as of today, this evening.”

For now, FCPS will forge ahead with its Return to School plan even as COVID-19 cases rise in Fairfax County at a rate not seen since early June and the public school system reports its first outbreaks of the pandemic.

According to FCPS, Justice High School in Falls Church and Woodson High School in Fairfax had outbreaks on Nov. 10 that involved staff members, but no students. An outbreak is defined as more than two cases of COVID-19 that are epidemiologically linked.

FCPS sent out letters reporting the outbreaks to the affected school communities and is working with the Fairfax County Health Department to support its contact tracing investigations.

“Those outbreaks are concerning to us, and we take that seriously,” FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd said. “We’re following up on what may have contributed to the transmission in our schools.”

As of this morning, FCPS has recorded 192 COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, including 28 cases involving students, though the vast majority of infected individuals have been employees. 40 cases have been reported just this week starting on Nov. 8.

The unions that represent FCPS educators have argued that the school system should halt its plans for bringing in more students.

“We do not believe we should continue to send our most vulnerable students into the buildings,” the Fairfax Education Association board of directors said in a statement. “…It is unacceptable for FCPS to disregard the advice of scientists and medical professionals during a global pandemic, thereby placing our students, staff, and families at risk.”

FCPS is using metrics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guide its reopening strategy. The established thresholds that Fairfax County must meet for the next cohort of students to begin in-person instruction are 200 or fewer cases per 100,000 people and less than 8% test positivity for seven consecutive calendar days.

As of Nov. 13, Fairfax County had 190.8 new cases per 100,000 people within the past 14 days and a 6.4% positivity rate for COVID-19 tests, putting it just barely within those thresholds, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

While resuming in-person instruction raises public health risks, FCPS is also grappling with the consequences of limiting students to virtual learning.

Brabrand confirmed on Thursday that more students than usual received D and F grades in the 2020-2021 academic year’s first quarter, which ended on Nov. 2. A formal analysis of the impact of distance learning on students’ grades is still being conducted.

“I do think that in-person is much easier for us to assess student progress and engagement and be able to evaluate student progress,” Bush Hill Elementary School Principal Mary Duffy told the school board.

Whether hybrid learning will impart the same academic benefits as full-time in-person learning remains to be seen, however, as families and some employees remain skeptical of the concurrent learning model that FCPS has been piloting since October.

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers survey of 475 FCPS employees found that 92.4% of the respondents participating in the pilot program feel virtual and in-person students are not receiving an equitable education, and 76.9% say they can provide higher quality instruction through full distance learning.

FCPS Director of News and Information Lucy Caldwell says the school system is doing its best to balance the needs of students and instructional staff, stating that many teachers have said they want to return to the classroom.

“Our return-to-school plan, in which gradually certain cohorts of students and their teachers return to in-person instruction, prioritizes the safety of students and staff,” Caldwell said. “We have protocols in place, robust health and safety metrics, a transparent dashboard, and a phased-in approach that will allow us to closely monitor conditions and to make any necessary adjustments.”

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Fairfax County Public Schools could expand in-person learning to more students starting next week based on current health data, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand says in a presentation that he will deliver to the county school board at its work session tonight (Thursday).

Virginia Department of Health data indicates that Northern Virginia has started seeing a slight uptick in reported COVID-19 cases in October, with 314 cases reported on Oct. 15 for a seven-day moving average of 248 cases. However, the burden and extent of community transmission in the region is still considered low as of the week that ended on Oct. 10.

Coupled with efforts to implement mitigation strategies recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prepare staff for instructional and operational changes, Fairfax County’s current health metrics supportFCPS continuing to phase in in-person learning, Brabrand’s presentation says.

After introducing in-person instruction for select specialized career preparation classes on Oct. 5, FCPS is planning to expand in-person learning to some of its early childhood special education services, including its preschool autism class, on Oct. 19.

Under Brabrand’s tentative timeline, FCPS will continue phasing cohorts of students – mostly younger students and students with special education needs – into in-person classes throughout the rest of the year before introducing hybrid learning for all students in early 2021.

For hybrid learning, students can choose to remain completely online or to receive two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction. This phase will start on Jan. 4 for grades three to six and on Feb. 1 for grades seven through 12.

“We believe in-person instruction is best to meet our students’ academic, social, and emotional needs,” Brabrand’s presentation says. “We want to phase students back to in-person instruction as safely, efficiently, and as early as possible. All phase-in decisions will be made with student and staff safety as the highest priority.”

FCPS is also proposing a pilot to test a concurrent instructional model where teachers would work simultaneously with students in the classroom and online. The pilot would start next week with first-grade students at Kings Park Elementary School in Springfield and English, math, and science classes at West Springfield High School.

The number of pilot sites will scale up later in October, according to Brabrand’s presentation.

FCPS says a concurrent instructional model would provide scheduling flexibility, save teachers from having to plan separate activities for in-person and virtual students, and allow students to continue receiving instruction whether they are online or physically in their school building.

Possible challenges include the additional burden on teachers as they transition to a concurrent model, the difficulty of managing a classroom with both in-person and online students, and the potential for video and audio issues to affect students’ learning experience.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing FCPS as it attempts to resume in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March is the availability of teachers and support staff, who have expressed concerns about returning to the classroom due to the possible health risks.

An FCPS survey of teachers and instructional support staff found that 84 percent of respondents have a desire to return to support in-person instruction, but the school system only heard back from 56 percent of the individuals that were surveyed. People who did not respond are assigned to in-person instruction by default.

Of the respondents who suggested they would not return for in-person instruction, 259 people said they would request Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations for health concerns. 47 people cited childcare responsibilities, while 41 people would take a leave of absence and 11 people said they would resign or retire.

After conducting its own survey, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers reported on Oct. 6 that almost 53 percent of its members would consider taking a leave of absence or resigning if asked to return to work in person, with only 9.7 percent of respondents saying they feel safe returning.

The federation, which serves as a labor union for FCPS educators and staff, has criticized the county’s return-to-school plan as lacking in transparency and detail.

While some of the metrics sought by the federation are in Brabrand’s presentation for tonight, including the availability of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, FCFT says it has still not gotten a commitment from FCPS to provide clear metrics for determining school closures, train all staff on protocols before everyone returns to school buildings, maintain a daily public record of cleanings, or explain how its new mask regulation will be enforced, among other demands.

“We are pleased to see that FCPS is providing some additional details to the School Board tonight,” FCFT organizer Tiffany Finck-Haynes said in a statement. “We do continue to have unanswered questions regarding the plan, have significant concerns with the concurrent teaching model proposed, and continue to urge FCPS to adopt our 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening.”

The Fairfax County School Board’s work session is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. The board will not formally vote on Brabrand’s proposed return-to-school plan, but FCPS staff recommends that the board give a consensus to support the plan.

Photo courtesy FCFT

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