Reston, VA

Although schools will remain closed through the academic year due to a state order, Fairfax County Public Schools will kick off distance learning on April 14.

Beginning next week, teachers will receive virtual training to begin the transition. Last week, elementary and middle school principals met with the school system’s leadership to receive updates on the overall plan for resuming instruction.

“Launching a distance learning plan to reach 189,000 students that engages nearly 16,000 classroom teachers is a complex challenge. We acknowledge that distance learning cannot reasonably replace daily in-person instructional programs, and we will not be trying to replicate the regular school day,” FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabard wrote in a letter to parents yesterday (Thursday).

The board is will consider the distance learning plan, graduation requirements and other matters related to COVID-19 at a special meeting today (Friday) at 11 a.m.

Challenges to transition to distance learning include how to best support special student populations, receiving copyright permissions to broadcast and print materials, and the limited availability of technology for learning.

The proposal includes closing all third-quarter grades as of March 13 and assigning a “no mark” for the fourth quarter to “allow students’ work in the 4th quarter to positively influence their final grades” for high school and middle school students.

For elementary school students, no fourth-quarter grades will be assigned “due to equity issues of access to technology and limited student ability to submit work.”

The Virginia Department of Education says it will ensure seniors who are on-track to graduate as of the school systems’ closure will graduate on time.

High school students will participate in teacher-led instruction and independent learning. Teachers are expected to contact students beginning next week.

Middle school students will receive learning packets for language arts, math, science, and social studies. Virtual, teacher-led instruction will be conducted for these four classes. Teachers for electives will post learning activities to Blackboard.

Elementary school students will also distribute learning packets to students beginning this week. Teacher-student engagement online will be emphasized, as well as teacher check-ins, phone calls and emails with students. Parents will also receive a published schedule of instruction from school principals.

Draft proposals before the board on learning schedules are below.

Students enrolled in special education programs will have access to resources online as well. More information about other programs, including guidance for English to Speakers of Others Languages, is available online.

The distribution of 15,000 wireless hotspots and laptops for students in need has already begun. Braband said other details on the distance learning plan are expected to be released in the coming days.

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Tuesday Morning Notes

State House Votes to Abolish Lee Jackson Day — Virginia moved one step closer to abolishing the holiday that honors two Confederate generals. The bill would remove Lee Jackson Day as a state holiday and Make Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a state holiday instead. [WAMU]

County Seeks 911 Call Takers — The county is seeking call takers for the emergency line. Applications are due by Feb. 14. [Fairfax County Government]

School Board Approves Capital Improvement Program — “The FY 2021-25 CIP addresses uneven growth throughout the division because of changes in population, new development, and net migration. It continues to include potential capacity and capital solutions to schools which are currently or projected to be over capacity.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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Monday Morning Notes

Fairfax County Public Schools’ Superintendent Pitches Budget — The $3.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 was presented to the county’s school board earlier this month. It represents a 5.8 percent increase over the previous budget. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Reston-based Company Names Chief Product Officer — “Reston-based higher education software company Ellucian has named Stephen Laster as its chief product officer… Ellucian provides products for higher education such as student information systems, data analytics tools and graduation-tracking platforms for more than 2,700 customers.” [Virginia Business]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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(Updated 12/28/19) Come Jan. 1, the Fairfax County School Board will have a lot of new faces.

The 12-member board will see eight newcomers in 2020.

Half of the school board’s incumbents decided not to seek reelection, including: Ilryong MoonRyan McElveen, Jane Strauss, Pat Hynes, Sandy Evans and Dalia Palchik. The two Republican incumbents — Elizabeth Schultz and Thomas Wilson — lost their reelection bids.

At-Large Member Karen Keys-Gamarra won reelection, along with:

Here is information on the new incoming members, who took their oaths of office on Thursday (Dec. 12) at Jackson Middle School.

At-Large Members Abrar Omeish and Rachna Sizemore Heizer

Omeish and Heizer, along with incumbent Karen Keys-Gamarra, beat three opponents for the At-Large seats.

Heizer has worked as a college professor, disability justice advocate and lawyer, according to her campaign website. Omeish is the co-founder of Give, a youth-led nonprofit and led the county-wide campaign for an anti-bullying campaign, according to her campaign website.

Hunter Mill District: Melanie Meren

Meren, a former U.S. Department of Education employee, beat her opponent, Laura Ramirez Drain. Meren is a parent and small business owner who has lived in Fairfax County for more than 15 years, according to Reston Now

Dranesville District: Elaine Tholen

Tholen beat three opponents. A resident of Fairfax County for 25 years, Tholen most recently served as the director and treasurer for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, according to her campaign website.

Mason District: Ricardy Anderson

Anderson beat opponent Tom Pafford. She has been a community volunteer, a veteran of the National Guard Army Reserve and lived in Annandale for more than 10 years, according to her campaign website.

Providence District: Karl Frisch

Frisch beat opponent Andrea Bayer in the election. Frisch has served as the executive director of consumer watchdog Allied Progress, was a small business owner and worked as a staffer for the Committee on Rules in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to his campaign website.

Springfield District: Laura Jane Cohen

Cohen beat two opponents, including Republican incumbent Elizabeth Schultz. Cohen has been a resident in the county for nearly 20 years and is a former preschool teacher, according to her campaign website.

Sully District: Stella Pekarsky

Pekarsky beat Republican incumbent Tom Wilson. She was previously an FCPS ESOL teacher, small business co-owner and trustee on the Fairfax County Board.

Come 2020, the school board seats will all be filled by Democrats.

“Corbett Sanders will remain chair of the School Board and Derenak Kaufax will remain as vice-chair,” according to FCPS. “School Board officers are elected at the first meeting in July of each year.”

The board also includes a non-voting student representative who is selected by the Student Advisory Council.

Image via FCPS/YouTube, photo via Melanie Meren website, photo via Facebook

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Three Fairfax County Public School teachers — including two local residents — were charged in connection with the assaults of six children with intellectual disabilities at Freedom Hill Elementary in Vienna.

Cylmeera Gastav, 48 of Herndon, and Cecilia Maria Benavides, 59, of Alexandria, were charged with felony cruelty, injuries to children, misdemeanor assault and battery. They were placed on leave after the investigation began.

The school’s former principal, Scott Bloom, 39, of Reston, was charged with failing to report the abuse to law enforcement of child protective services, as required by law. A total of 18 counts were handed down by a jury.

Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said described the victims as “nonverbal students with intellectual disabilities” and pledged to provide support to victims and their families as the case is prosecuted in the justice system.

The Fairfax County Police Department conducted a press briefing on the investigation, which has been ongoing since September, earlier today. A teacher tipped law enforcement about the incidents.

Marty Smith, chief operating officer for Fairfax County Public Schools, said he was deeply disturbed by the allegations.

“We are deeply saddened by this situation and resolve to do all we can to support our students, their families and others who have been impacted,” Smith said.

Photo via FCPD

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Monday Morning Notes

Test Drive of Self Driving Cars in Reston — “It wasn’t exactly thrilling. “Like, literally, it is a boring ride,” says Ryan Chin, who cofounded Optimus with five buddies from MIT. But that is precisely what’s radical: For self-driving cars to truly affect the way we live, Chin thinks, using them will have to become as routine as driving your Civic to the supermarket. The Optimus cars can travel only around the Halley Rise complex; the route could expand to include the future Reston Town Square Metro station.” [Washingtonian]

Facilities Planning Council Seeks Hunter Mill District Applicants — The School Board is seeking applications from Hunter Mill District residents for a seat on the Facilities Planning Advisory Council (FPAC). FPAC advises and informs FCPS staff and the School Board in the development of comprehensive, long-term plans for facilities.” Applications are due by Jan. 6. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Town of Herndon Planning Commission to Meet Today — The commission meets today to discuss standards regarding communications towers and the town’s comprehensive plan tonight. [Town of Herndon]

Staff Photo by Jay Westcott

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As the number of local students who vape soars,  Fairfax County Public Schools doubling down on how to decrease the use of e-cigarettes.

In September, Fairfax County Public Schools pursued more stringent measures if a student was caught vaping on campus.  Additionally, the school board also classified vaping as a prohibited activity in the school system’s student rights and responsibilities handbook last year.

Lucy Caldwell, the school system’s communication director, said that FCPS also works with the Fairfax County Health Department to develop a toolkit for students to provide educational information about the health impacts of e-cigarettes.

Stemming the rise of e-cigarettes — which some see as a safe alternative to smoking — is a nationwide challenge. The number of youth who are e-cigarette users jumped by 1.5 million between 2017 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No change was found in the use of other tobacco products during this time.

A recent survey administered by FCPS found that one in five students vaped recently.

South Lakes High School held four parent sessions through the Parent Teacher Student Administration or administration-sponsored meetings to help parents partner with the school on addressing this issue, according to SLHS Principal Kim Retzer.

The school also has a substance abuse prevention specialization who provides support for students and resources for parents, Retzer told Reston Now.

“South Lakes deals with students vaping as do other high schools in the area,” she said.

At Herndon High School, Principal Liz Noto says that the school is working with FCPS’s Student Safety and Wellness Office to educate the student body about the issue. Like other schools, HHS also finds ways for students seeking to quit vaping.

Photo via Unsplash/Tbel Abuseridze

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Melanie Meren, a former U.S. Department of Education employee, easily won the Hunter Mill District seat on the Fairfax County School Board.

With a little over 69 percent of the vote, Meren overtook her opponent, Laura Ramirez Drain, as of 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday (Nov. 6). According to unofficial election returns, 27 of the 28 precincts reported results. 

Meren has described herself as a “Fairfax County parent leader” who wants to promote strong education. Drain’s campaign focused on the family life education curriculum, school boundaries and the FCPS budget.

Earlier in January, Hunter Mill District representative Pat Hynes said she would not seek re-election.

Voters also ceremoniously ushered in former Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn, the Democratic candidate for the Hunter Mill District Supervisor seat, Tuesday night. Alcorn, who won the Democratic primary, faced no candidate from any other party.

Democrat Steve Descano won the Commonwealth’s Attorney position in Fairfax after ousting current Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrough in the June primary.

Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust (D) retained his position on the county board, which he has held since 2007, as well, defeating Republican opponent Ed Martin.

Photo via Melanie Meren

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Monday Morning Notes

New School Board Policy on Cannabis-Derived Oil in Schools — “The Fairfax County School Board has approved a policy on the storage, dispensing, and administration of cannabidiol oil and THC-A that aligns with Virginia law that became effective on July 1. The policy states that no school nurse or employee of a local health department who is assigned to a public school can be prosecuted for possessing, storing, or distributing cannabidiol (CBD) oil or tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THC-A) oil that has been prescribed via a valid, written certification by a medical professional.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Self-driving Shuttles in Suburbs Like Reston — “A Boston-based startup called Optimus Ride has launched a new self-driving vehicle service in the Washington, DC suburb of Reston, Virginia. On Monday, I traveled to the site, a 45-minute drive from my home in the nation’s capital, to see it first-hand. Since August, the company has been ferrying passengers between a Fannie Mae office building at the site and an overflow parking lot a few minutes’ walk away. But Optimus Ride has much larger ambitions for the site.” [Ars Technica]

Development Surges Along the Silver Line — “While acknowledging the need for housing and concerns about the area’s already high cost of living, Northern Virginia business leaders see the impending arrival of the Silver Line and its surrounding development as critical for the economic future of not just Fairfax and Loudoun, but the region as a whole.” [Fairfax County Times]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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The League of Fairfax Women Voters is hosting a candidate forum on Sunday, Oct. 13.

The forums is for candidates in Senate Districts 3 and 33, as well as the representative for the Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board.

The discussion takes place at Reston Community Center Hunters Woods (2310 Colts Neck Road) from 3-5 p.m. Students interested in volunteering can sign up online. Registration for the event is encouraged, but not required.

After a moderated discussion, candidates will answer questions from the audience.

Two candidates — Laura Ramirez Drain and Melanie Meren — are running for the Hunter Mill District seat on the school board after incumbent Hunter Mill District Representative Pay Hynes said she will not seek re-election.

Photo via League of Women Voters of Fairfax County

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Wednesday Morning Notes

Boat Rental Season Extended — Reston Association has extended boat rental season through Oct. 15. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays,  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m on Oct. 14. [Reston Association]

County Seeks Comment on High School Science Resources — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is soliciting public review and comment on basal instructional resources under consideration for high school science.  A basal resource review committee composed of community members, administrators, and teachers will meet this fall to review and recommend new high school science instructional resources to the Fairfax County School Board.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Lake Thoreau Pool Structural Analysis Update — Reston Association has received preliminary findings from engineers about the pool’s concrete decking and shell. A complete analysis and recommendations is expected in October. [Reston Association]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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After flagging a number of schools with Confederate ties, the Fairfax County School Board is considering aligning its school renaming and naming policy with the county’s commitment to building an inclusive, respectful learning environment.

At a Thursday meeting, the school board is expected to vote on a proposal to ensure school are named “appropriately.” Seven Fairfax County schools, including Robert E. Lee High School and Mosby Woods Elementary School, have ties to Confederate soldiers and and other individuals with Confederate ties.

The school board has been discussing the issue over the past year. At a recent meeting, school board members noted that “Confederate values are ones that do not align with our community.”

If the proposal is approved, the board can proceed with changing the name of a school or facility if it conflicts with One Fairfax, a county-wide policy that aims to ensure the county considers equity when making policies or delivering program and services. Additionally, school names and mascots associated with those names should be consistent with that policy.

It is unclear if the school board will immediately pursue changes to the names of schools if changes to the procedural process are approved on Thursday.

In recent years, ties of public institutions, statues and public installations to the Confederacy have been scrutinized by some regional and national entities.

Photo via FCPS

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Editor’s Note: Two candidates are running for the seat of Pat Hynes, who currently holds the Hunter Mill District seat on the Fairfax County School Board. Earlier this year, Hynes said she would not seek reelection after serving on the 12-member board for the last seven years. This week, Reston Now will publish statements by the candidates.

Statements are published in the order in which they are received. With the exception of minor formatting edits, profiles are published in unedited form.

Melanie Meren, MPP, is a parent, small business owner, and school board appointee who has lived in Fairfax County for over 15 years. Originally from New York, where she attended public school her entire life, Melanie moved to Virginia after accepting a Presidential Management Fellowship in 2004 at the U.S. Department of Education.

While at the Dept. of Ed, Melanie oversaw a multi-million-dollar budget for services for students at underperforming schools. Her responsibility encompassed both evaluation and problem-solving situations, with oversight of federal grant recipients. She recovered over $1 million in funds when program services were not provided to the target population of students most-in-need of support.

Advocacy and community are central in her life. Joined by her husband, Drew Meren, the two are active in local government. Melanie’s current community service commitments are:

  • Appointed member of Fairfax County School Board’s Human Resources Advisory Committee
  • Elementary school PTA Green Team Chair and representative to the Fairfax County Council of PTAs
  • Girl Scout troop co-leader
  • Member of the Virginia Association for Environmental Education
  • Until 2019, she was a Leadership Team member for eight years of NoVA Outside, the alliance for outdoor educators in Northern Virginia

Melanie views academic success as a community effort: there must be a connection among those impacted by student achievement: parents, teachers, community members, and of course, students. Motivating students to succeed is essential, and the environments around them must be built and supported by dedicated public servants who steward resources along a responsible path.

Melanie is focused on three core areas in her candidacy. First, she wants to cultivate holistic student environments – classrooms, playgrounds, activities, school gardens, and outdoor spaces are all part of the learning ecosystem. For example, Melanie champions scientific learning in outdoor classrooms. Students who interact in these spaces achieve learning goals essential to a 21st century economy, benefit from being in a healthy space, and discover lessons that anchor their sense of community. No matter where in Hunter Mill students live, their greatest challenge should be in understanding what array of choices lay before them, not if they’ll have those opportunities.

Second, Melanie is concerned with facilities and the future of FCPS infrastructure. No student should experience public schooling inside a trailer, and existing buildings need to be reviewed, refitted, or replaced. Joyful learning and a positive classroom experience is critical, and it is incumbent upon those responsible to identify every way to accomplish that. Facilities and trailers are a clear place to start.

Third, Melanie is focusing on equity and opportunity. That means honoring teacher and staff professionalism with opportunities for competitive pay and benefits, realistic expectations on their time, and access to vital instructional resources. For students, the promise of a Fairfax County Public Schools education must align with their strengths and cultivate their path into adulthood. Melanie believes that parents and families are what bring the whole learning experience together. Melanie has advocated with and for fellow parents since her first year as an FCPS parent. She will bring her steadfast commitment to listening to and working with parents to her role on the school board.

Melanie welcomes your questions and input about her candidacy – and for your vote on November 5th. Learn more at melaniemeren.com.

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Editor’s Note: Two candidates are running for the seat of Pat Hynes, who currently holds the Hunter Mill District seat on the Fairfax County School Board. Earlier this year, Hynes said she would not seek reelection after serving on the 12-member board for the last seven years. This week, Reston Now will publish statements by the candidates.

Statements are published in the order in which they are received. With the exception of minor formatting edits, profiles are published in unedited form.

My name is Laura Ramirez-Drain and I am a unique political candidate running in my first election. I am an engineer, a small-business entrepreneur and a parent of two sons who attended FCPS from elementary to high school. I have been advocating for students for many years as an active PTA volunteer. As a busy, working mother I had never given any thought to running for office.

But as my children went through school, I realized that while FCPS has some of the strongest schools in the country too many children were able to fall through the cracks of that system. Furthermore, it became clear that the schools were veering away from teaching academic fundamentals and allowing a political agenda to permeate the curriculum at all levels. I felt that I could no longer sit on the sidelines and that the time had come for me to stand up and advocate for the policies that will ensure our students thrive.

I’m running to be a voice on the School Board for people of all backgrounds in Hunter Mill district. I strongly believe in the importance of high-quality public education for all students. As a naturalized citizen having immigrated here from Mexico, empowering minority students has always been a priority of mine.  I founded the Alcanzando Metas (Reaching Goals) Foundation to foster academic excellence in minority youth, particularly in STEM subjects. The Foundation helped over 200 students of color in Washington, DC and Birmingham, AL, successfully graduate from high school and pursue careers in their areas of interest. I plan to draw on that experience in helping to reduce the current racial achievement gap in Fairfax County schools.  Democratic-endorsed members of the school board have held a majority for almost 25 years but have done nothing to close this gap.

As committed as I am to equality of opportunity, I do not believe that “equity” has to mean changing boundaries of schools to achieve arbitrary ratios of students by ethnic group.  Students should go to schools in the communities that have nurtured them throughout their childhood. We should be building up all of our schools, and not spending resources to move children out of their own neighborhoods

Finally, I believe education is a partnership among students, teachers, and families.  I believe parents, as the first and educators of their children, should hold the primary responsibility for determining when and how their children should be educated on issues of sexuality.  As a school board member, I will commit to fighting to make Family Life Education opt-in, as opposed to opt-out. I will also do everything in my power to ensure that we are not inappropriately sexualizing young children via a politicized curriculum.

I look forward to continue getting to know the families of Hunter Mill District.  I want to make it clear that whether or not you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or other family member in FCPS, this election is critically important.  Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders and how we educate our future leaders is an issue that affects all of us. I hope you will visit my website, vote4laura.com, and learn more about my background and platform.

Photo courtesy Vadym Guliuk

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Wednesday Morning Notes

Facilities Planning Council Seeks Representative — The school board’s Facilities Planning Advisory Council is seeking a member to represent the Hunter Mill District. Howard Perlstein, the current representative for the district, is leaving the council since it was established over a decade ago. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

County Hosts Launch of Statewide Checkpoint Strikeforce Campaign — State and local officials launched the annual statewide anti-drunk driving Checkpoint Strikeforce Campaign. The DUI law enforcement and public education campaign continues through Labor Day weekend and will resume during Halloween and the holidays. Complementing the high visibility enforcement, Checkpoint Strikeforce is sponsoring an advertising campaign called “Act Like It.”‘ [Fairfax County Police Department]

Dog Days of Summer is Today — Enjoy a special play zone for dogs and their owners today at Reston Town Center’s pavilion from 5-7:30 p.m. The last session is on September 4. [Reston Town Center]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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