Reston, VA

More students and teachers in the Fairfax County County Public Schools system have been identified as victims of a ransomware attack that took place in September.

In a letter to parents, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said his staff has identified more people who may have been impacted by the attack.

”In line with our commitment to providing credit monitoring and identity restoration services to those who may need them, we have distributed additional individualized notices to ensure all eligible members of our community who wish to utilize these services have access to them,” Brabrand wrote in a letter to parents and students last night.

On Sept. 11 — just a few days after virtual learning resumed — hackers posted personal information of some students and staff on the dark web. Maze, a group of cybercriminals, claimed responsibility for the attack, which uses ransomware to prevent users from accessing files. In some cases, data is extracted and held hostage until a ransom is paid.

While the incident remains under investigation, Brabrand said that the school system is working with the FBI and Virginia State Police to investigate the attack.

Brabrand’s complete letter is below, after the jump.

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All Fairfax County Public Schools students will learn virtually tomorrow (Wednesday) as the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area braces for its potential first snow of the year.

While the heaviest precipitation is expected to fall more toward the western part of Virginia, the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory at 4:00 p.m. today for Fairfax County, predicting that the area will see mixed precipitation with about one to three inches of snow and sleet accumulation.

The advisory will be in effect from 10 a.m. on Wednesday to 1 a.m. on Thursday.

“Plan on slippery road conditions,” the NWS says. “The hazardous conditions could impact the morning or evening commute.”

That forecast is a slight downgrade from the agency’s projections on Monday, when it issued a winter storm watch suggesting that Fairfax County could see more than five inches of snow.

Still, FCPS has decided to close all school buildings to students.

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Tuesday Morning Notes

Reston Association Phone Service Restored — After experiencing issues with inbound calls to its member services line, phone service has been restored. [RA]

Snow Days Possible During Virtual Learning — With snow expected on Wednesday and into Thursday, school officials are saying they still anticipate providing “additional approaches” for observing snow days that could include teacher-led and independent learning. Days off are also possible. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Fairfax County Shelter Offers Safe Adoption — Local police are looking into cases of puppy scams in the area. A spike in the number of pet scams has also been reported. [Reston Patch]

Search Underway for Classroom Monitors — The school system is currently looking to hire temporary classroom monitors. A job description is available online. [FCPS]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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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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Lake Anne Elementary School will receive a grant from the Virginia Department of Education to boost its security.

The grant award of $104,000 covers Garfield ES and Lake Anne ES. It will pay for video monitoring systems, voice and video internal communications systems, school bus cameras, mass notification systems, access control systems, two-way radios, and other security upgrades, according to a release by Fairfax County Public Schools.

The award was developed with the help of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Priority is given to schools most in need of security, schools with high numbers of offenses, schools with needs flagged in a security audit, and unmet funding needs.

This year, the program expanded to include funding for security equipment on school buses, according to Lucy Caldwell, the system’s director of news and information.

“FCPS intends to use the funds to enhance security systems at these schools,” Caldwell wrote in a statement to Reston Now. “Even though this is not a ‘normal’ school year, security and safety of our school buildings, staff, students and visitors is always a high priority.”

FCPS is one of 102 school divisions to receive the grant.

Photo via Google Maps

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Fairfax County Public Schools is creating “Safety Teams” of staff members and retirees to monitor adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols at schools that have reopened to students.

Charged with enforcing the implementation of mitigation strategies recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teams will conduct random on-site spot checks, provide education and resources, and report data to administrators, according to a news release that FCPS published yesterday (Monday).

“The role of these teams is to help protect staff and students, and to make sure we all know what we can do to ensure safe, clean, healthy spaces,” FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg said. “We’ve been training teams and conducting checks in recent weeks across FCPS.”

To limit the transmission of COVID-19, the CDC says schools should, at a minimum, ensure that students and staff consistently and correctly use masks, maintain social distancing to the extent possible, practice hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, clean and disinfect facilities, and collaborate on contact tracing with local health officials.

The announcement that FCPS has deployed safety teams comes as school officials face dueling pressures from reports indicating that virtual learning has hampered many students’ educational experience and from teachers’ unions who arguethat in-person classes are unsafe.

FCPS currently has approximately 5,500 students receiving in-person instruction, all of them in special education, career preparation, and other specialized programs.

FCPS returned 2,900 students to distance learning and suspended plans to bring more students into school buildings on Nov. 16, when the COVID-19 transmission rate in Fairfax County surpassed 200 new cases per 100,000 people.

The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests over the last 14 days also has to be lower than 10% for students to start or remain in class.

As of Dec. 7, Fairfax County’s COVID-19 case rate is now more than double the 200-case threshold at 431.4 new cases per 100,000 people within the past 14 days. The test positivity rate is currently at 9.4%.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and Fairfax Education Association, two unions that represent faculty and staff in FCPS, have urged FCPS to return all students to virtual learning.

“In schools that are already open, COVID-19 cases are increasing and employees report unsafe working conditions,” the FCFT said as part of a letter-writing campaign. “Fairfax County must transition everyone to virtual learning until it is safe.”

FCPS has recorded 387 COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, including 300 staff members and 58 students. 21 cases involved staff at multiple sites, according to the school system’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Platenberg says the data that FCPS collects through its new safety teams will help officials determine where to devote additional education or resources in their effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

“We want to make sure we are consistently implementing the CDC’s strategies,” Platenberg said. “This is new for all of us, and so far, we are encouraged by what we see.”

Photo via FCPS

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Tuesday Morning Notes

FCPA Director Retires After 40 Years — “Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) Executive Director Kirk Kincannon announced his retirement this week, ending his tenure with the award-winning agency effective Feb. 12, 2021. Kincannon, a seasoned parks and recreation professional with four decades of national experience.” [Fairfax County Government]

‘HOPE’ Letters on Display at Reston. Hospital Center — A new installation with the word “Hope” is on display at the entrance of Reston Hospital. Center. [COVID-19 U.S. Honor Quilt]

Updates on Vaccine in Fairfax County — The county offers information on the COVID-19 vaccine, which is an mRNA vaccine.  These vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response in our bodies. [Fairfax County Government]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

 

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A South Lakes High School junior has found a unique way to give back to her local community amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The student, Christina, learned how to make face masks and donated around 1,000 masks to her school’s food pantry. The effort began after. When she first began the project, she placed the masks in little free libraries and donated other masks to her neighbors.

In a recent release, Fairfax County Public Schools stated that she is now known as the “mask lady” in her own neighborhood. Her last name was not released due to privacy reasons.

South Lakes is proud of how these siblings exemplify the best of the FCPS Portrait of a Graduate as Ethical and Global Citizens. Their daily actions show how they contribute to solutions that benefit the broader community and demonstrate empathy, compassion and respect for others,” the statement reads.

Here’s more from FCPS on the venture:

A teen who loves crafts and art, Christina is inspired by her teachers at South Lakes, local artists, and summer classes she has taken at Reston Community Center.

Christina and her family stayed at a Ronald McDonald House Charity when a sibling was being treated for cancer. She spent her time there helping the other families by offering to babysit and host spa days. She also spent hours every day painting mugs and glasses that the charity sold to donors. Christina creates paintings that are sold to benefit Saint Jude’s Research Hospital.

She also enjoys working with people with special needs. Four years ago, her youth group volunteered as fishing coaches, pairing with people with special needs to compete in the Cape Charles Queen of the Bay Fishing Tournament. She enjoyed it so much that she returns to volunteer each year.

Photo via FCPS

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Tuesday Morning Notes

Concerns Voiced About Zoning Modernization Project — Reston Association’s Board of Directors have written a letter to the Hunter Mill District Supervisor voicing concerns about the county’s ongoing zoning ordinance modernization project.  Concerns highlighted include the need for more public review and issues related to accessory living units and home-based businesses. [RA]

FCPD Mourns Loss of K9 — “We are heartbroken to share the news of the recent passing of one of our retired patrol canines, K9 Blitz. K9 Blitz served the Fairfax County community from 2008 to 2012, when his handler left the Canine Section due to a career promotion. K9 Blitz was a Belgian Malinois who was also specially trained to assist our SWAT team on operations.” [Fairfax County Police Department]

Reminder: Taxes Due Dec. 7 — If real estate taxes aren’t already built in your mortgage, the second installment of this year’s real estate tax is due by Dec. 7. Payments can be made online. [Fairfax County Government]

FCPS Establishes Student Equity Ambassador Leaders Program — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has established a new leadership program–Student Equity Ambassador Leaders (SEALS)–to amplify student voices and provide an increased understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion through leadership development, projects, and relevant experiences of high school students.” [FCPS]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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An ongoing local surge in COVID-19 cases has forced some Fairfax County Public Schools students to revert to online learning for the first time since FCPS started phasing in-person learning back in on Oct. 5.

FCPS announced on Monday (Nov. 23) that administrators had notified families that students in Group 4 would return to all-virtual instruction that day after Fairfax County’s health metrics surpassed the threshold that determines whether they should continue learning in person.

“The health metrics that guide our return to school in person reached a threshold yesterday that indicated we must dial back our Group 4 cohort in order to comply with the metrics we had stated to our community,” FCPS Director of News and Information Lucy Caldwell said in a statement.

Group 4 consists of 2,900 students, including elementary students at Burke School and students in specialized high school career preparatory programs. Affected classes range from culinary arts and musical theater to robotics, veterinary sciences, and the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC).

These students had been permitted to learn either virtually or through a hybrid model with two days of in-person instruction and two days of online instruction since Oct. 26.

Based on metrics recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FCPS determined that Group 4 could continue in-person learning as long as Fairfax County’s COVID-19 caseload did not exceed 200 cases per 100,000 people for seven consecutive days.

The county’s positivity rate for novel coronavirus testing also had to stay at or under 10%.

Fairfax County officially passed the 200-case threshold on Sunday (Nov. 22). At 289.8 cases per 100,000 people, Monday marked eight consecutive days of the county exceeding that limit.

The county’s cases-per-100,000-people and testing positivity rates must both fall under the established thresholds for seven consecutive days for students to resume in-person learning.

“As soon as these metrics indicate that it is safe to return to in-person instruction, Group 4 students will be phased back into schools,” FCPS said on Monday.

This is the second consecutive week that Fairfax County’s COVID-19 spread has required FCPS to revise its Return to School timeline.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced on Nov. 16 that FCPS would pause plans to welcome back an additional 6,800 kindergarten, preschool, and special education students that had been scheduled to return to classrooms on Nov. 17.

FCPS has set Dec. 1 as a possible new day for those students to start in-person learning, but with health experts anticipating the pandemic to worsen over Thanksgiving break, that date looks extremely tentative.

“As far as Group 5, we had indicated we would be communicating their in-person return closer to the December 1 date,” Caldwell said. “The numbers right now have not decreased as we have been hoping.”

With FCPS closed for the week starting on Wednesday, Caldwell says the school system will share more information on what Group 5 students can expect either today (Tuesday) or at the end of the break on Nov. 30.

Roughly 5,500 FCPS students are still attending in-person classes. Most of them are in special education, English Learners, career preparation, and other specialized programs.

Though their established thresholds are looser, those cohorts could potentially join Group 4 students in transitioning back to learning exclusively online.

“Given the COVID-19 infection rates in our community, we do anticipate that it may be necessary to dial up and dial back our in-person cohorts,” Caldwell said.

Photo via FCPS

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Monday Morning Notes

How to Celebrate Thanksgiving Safely in Reston — “While it may be tempting to enjoy traditions as usual, the safest thing you can do, the CDC says, is celebrate at home with people who are part of your immediate household.  [Reston Patch]

Registration Opens for Winter Break Camp — The camp will begin on Dec. 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for children between ages five and 12. Enrollment is available on a daily basis. [RA]

FCPS Wins Three Communications Awards — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has won three awards in the 2020 CHESPRA (Chesapeake Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association) communications contest.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Photo by Marjorie Copson

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Friday Morning Notes

FCPS Seeks Class Monitors, Substitute Teachers — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the largest school system in Virginia, is seeking individuals to serve as classroom monitors and substitute teachers.” [FCPS]

County Hires Weekend Contact Interviewers — “The Fairfax Health District is expanding its pool of contact tracing staff and is actively seeking weekend contact interviewers. As COVID-19 cases increase in the Fairfax Health District, the additional staff will be needed in the efforts to effectively slow the spread of illness and ensure the health and safety of our community.” [Fairfax County Government]

New Chief Academic Officer Announced — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott S. Brabrand has named Sloan Presidio, who currently serves as assistant superintendent for instructional services, as the district’s new Chief Academic Officer, effective November 17.”  [FCPS]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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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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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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Monday Morning Notes

Dense Fog Advisory In Effect — The National Weather Service has issued a dense fog advisory for the area until 10 am. today. If driving, slow down, use your headlights, and leave plenty of distance between you and other vehicles. [NWS]

Delivery Times for FCPS Meal Sites, Bus Stops Change — “Beginning Monday, 11/9, delivery times and some bus stops for grab and go meals distributed on bus routes will change. These changes are due to the need for more buses to transport students returning to school for in-person learning.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Update from Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department on COVID-19 — As of this Sunday, four people in the department have tested positive. So far, 64 personnel have fully recovered.  [FCFRD]

Photo by Ray Copson

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