Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Updated at 11:50 a.m. — The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 this morning to support the continued mask requirement in schools and approved a letter directing Virginia to work with local health and school officials on metrics for making masks optional.

Earlier: When students across Fairfax County returned to classrooms today (Tuesday), they came wearing the most contentious, must-have accessory of the school year: face masks.

While the devices have become the subject of fierce political debate, Fairfax County Public Schools officials say that tension has not carried over into school buildings, where they have encountered few issues with getting students and staff to wear masks.

Just 40 out of the division’s nearly 180,000 students have been cited for not wearing a mask since the requirement took effect on Aug. 20, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Michelle Boyd said at a virtual town hall meeting last night (Monday).

“Certainly, students have had to be reminded to pull your face mask up and potentially to wear it appropriately, as we all have to have reminders,” Boyd said. “But by and large, we want to celebrate that FCPS students have stepped up and answered the call to keep themselves safe, to keep their friends safe, and to keep their community safe.”

Officials say the mask-wearing requirement, combined with vaccinations, testing, and other mitigation protocols, has proven effective so far at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Fairfax County Public Schools says nearly all students have complied with its face mask requirement (via FCPS/Facebook)

As of today, FCPS students, staff, and visitors have reported 6,362 Covid cases since August, including 2,681 cases this month — double the 1,317 cases seen in December.

Boyd noted that the number of cases still represents just a fraction of the district’s 206,111 students and staff, and while there have been 36 outbreaks reported, consisting of 155 cases, there have not been any since students returned from winter break on Jan. 10.

Unlike some other school systems in the area, FCPS has not reverted any schools to virtual learning due to Covid.

Still, with the school system seeing more cases than ever and community transmission levels high, albeit declining, Superintendent Scott Brabrand says FCPS needs to “stay the course” and maintain its current health and safety practices.

“We all seek a moment when we can go to creating mask-optional conditions, but now is not the time at the greatest surge we’ve ever had in the pandemic,” Brabrand said, stating later that FCPS is working with health officials to establish metrics for when to roll back masking and other requirements.

Whether FCPS will be allowed to continue with universal masking, however, is up to the courts after the county school board joined six other localities in filing a lawsuit yesterday to prevent Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order directing schools to make masks optional from taking effect. Read More

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With a second week of consistently declining cases, Fairfax County’s current, omicron variant-fueled Covid wave has receded closer to the levels seen last winter.

The Fairfax Health District, including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, reported 607 new cases today (Monday). With 845 cases added yesterday (Sunday), it’s the first time since Dec. 20 and 21 that there have been fewer than 1,000 new cases on consecutive days.

The county is now averaging 1,150 cases per day for the past week — less than half the weekly average of 2,520 cases recorded on Jan. 13, when the pandemic’s latest surge appears to have peaked.

Last winter, the seven-day average peaked at 697 cases on Jan. 17, 2021.

The omicron surge’s decline can also be seen in the district’s testing positivity rate, which has dropped from 34.1% on Jan. 10 to 23.1%, as of last Thursday (Jan. 20). The seven-day average for hospitalizations has gone from 5.7 on Jan. 15 to 3.1 today, when four new hospitalizations were reported.

In total, the Fairfax Health District has recorded 164,209 COVID-19 cases, 4,400 hospitalizations, and 1,272 deaths, five of them in the past week.

Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days, as of Jan. 24, 2022 (via VDH)
All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Jan. 24, 2022 (via VDH)

According to Fairfax County Health Department data, 840,040 residents overall — or 71% of the population — are fully vaccinated against Covid, including 80% of residents 18 and older.

The 949,105 residents, or 82% of the population, who have gotten at least one vaccine dose include:

  • 89.7% of adults
  • 94.9% of 16 to 17 year olds
  • 90.4% of 12-15 year olds
  • 47.6% of 5-11 year olds

In addition, 34.9% of Fairfax County residents, including 43.5% of adults, have gotten a booster shot or third dose, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

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(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) Fairfax County Public Schools and six other school divisions, most of them in Northern Virginia, have sued to stop Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s order that makes face masks optional in schools.

As first reported by The Washington Post, the lawsuit was filed in Arlington Circuit Court this morning (Monday), asking the court for an injunction to stop Youngkin’s order from being enforced.

FCPS was joined by the school boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Falls Church City, Hampton City, and Prince William County.

Collectively representing more than 350,000 students, the jurisdictions have all promised to continue requiring masks for students and staff, defying the executive order that Youngkin issued on Jan. 15, his first day in office, and was set to take effect today.

“The question for this Court is whether, by executive order, a governor can override both the Constitution of Virginia and a law enacted by the General Assembly,” the complaint says. “The School Boards respectfully submit that the answer to this question is no.”

In a joint statement, the suing school divisions say they’re seeking to defend “the right of school boards
to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff”:

This legal action centers on fundamental questions about the framework of public education in Virginia, as set out in the Virginia Constitution and by the General Assembly. At issue is whether locally elected school boards have the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, § 7 of the Constitution of Virginia over supervision of the public schools in their respective communities, or whether an executive order can unilaterally override that constitutional authority.

Also at issue is whether a governor can, through executive order, without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly, reverse a lawfully-adopted statute. In this case, Senate Bill 1303, adopted with the goal of returning students to safe in-person instruction five days a week in March 2021 and still legally in effect, provides that local school boards should follow The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health and safety requirements.

Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law. Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.

This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity.

With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level, and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies. School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand reaffirmed the division’s commitment to maintaining a mask requirement due to the spread of COVID-19 in a message to the community on Friday (Jan. 21), citing state law and a regulation that made masks part of the dress code, as of Aug. 20.

“We are working towards a day when we can begin to roll back these safety measures, including universal masking,” Brabrand said. “But for right now, we must continue to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable. More than anything else, these mitigation measures allow them to safely remain in our schools.”

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White brine lines are a familiar sight on Fairfax County roads before snowstorms, such as the one that passed through the D.C. area last weekend.

Not too long ago, though, winter weather preparations involved scattering tons of dry salt and sand on streets, sidewalks, and other outdoor surfaces.

The adoption of brine to prevent snow and ice from sticking to pavement is part of a regional effort to limit the use of salt, which is effective — and cheap — as a de-icing material but pollutes the environment and corrodes infrastructure.

“What we’re trying to do is walk that fine line between protecting the natural resources, but at the same time, providing the need for public safety,” said Normand Goulet, a senior environmental planner for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC).

The Salt Management Strategy

NVRC is overseeing the implementation of a Virginia Salt Management Strategy (SaMS) that the state Department of Environmental Quality released last year as a guide to minimizing the dangers of salt.

In the works since 2018, the strategy was developed by a committee that included Fairfax County staff after a water quality report identified de-icing salt as a primary contributor to excessive levels of chloride in Accotink Creek, affecting wildlife in the 51 square-mile watershed.

According to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES), one teaspoon of salt can permanently pollute five gallons of water.

The department advises residents to shovel snow early and often, apply salt only where needed, and sweep up extra material for reuse. Viable alternatives to salt include sand, wood ash, and native bird seed.

“One 12oz coffee mug holds enough salt to treat a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares,” DPWES said by email.

Why Brine?

The SaMS toolkit encourages local and state government agencies to pay closer attention to the salt they use for anti-icing, which comes before snow to prevent accumulation, and de-icing, which removes snow and ice during or after a storm. Read More

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Updated at 1:50 p.m.Winter Weather Advisory for Fairfax County, with the National Weather Service predicting up to 2 inches of snow from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow.

Earlier: All Fairfax County Public Schools students will participate in classes online tomorrow (Thursday) for the first time since February 2021.

The district announced the move shortly after noon today, citing weather forecasts that indicate some snowfall early in the morning.

Middle and high schools will have a two-hour delayed start, and elementary schools will begin the day at 10:30 a.m. FCPS advises all students to bring their laptops home and ensure their devices are charged.

Students were already scheduled to go home two hours early to mark the end of the second quarter. The early dismissal will remain in effect, and there will be no classes on Friday and Monday, which have been designated as a teacher work day and a professional development day, respectively.

FCPS is implementing virtual learning tomorrow after using up its five “traditional” snow days in response to winter weather that hit the D.C. area during the week of Jan. 3-7.

As of 10 a.m., the National Weather Service is projecting that Fairfax County could see 1 to 3 inches of snow between 1 p.m. today and 7 p.m. tomorrow. The D.C. area has a 64% chance of getting at least an inch of snow.

More details from the FCPS announcement are below:

Division operations are open on time and school and central office building work spaces are open. Employees are expected to report to work on time.

All employees (exempt and non-exempt) who are able to telework, meaning their job duties can be completed remotely and have access to the appropriate technology, may do so. Individuals who are unable to telework and those employees designated as essential are expected to report to their work site. Unscheduled leave is in effect. If you have questions, please contact your direct supervisor.

School age child care (SACC) centers are closed.

ACE students should check their email for communications from ACE staff and instructors.

We will reassess the weather conditions tomorrow to determine any potential impact on activities that are scheduled on school grounds.

Grab & Go breakfast and lunch will be available from 10 a.m.- 12 p.m. Please pick them up at our weekly meal kit distribution locations, listed on our website.

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Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days as of Jan. 18, 2022 (via Virginia Department of Health)

The peak of this winter’s omicron variant surge might be in the rearview mirror for Fairfax County.

After hitting an all-time high of 2,520 cases on Thursday (Jan. 13), the county’s COVID-19 caseload has dropped sharply over the past few days to a current weekly average of 1,919 new cases per day, according to Virginia Department of Health data.

That remains well above previous surges in the pandemic, since the county had never averaged more than 1,000 cases until this past Christmas. It’s also unclear whether Sunday’s snowstorm and yesterday’s government facility closures for Martin Luther King Jr. Day affected testing and reporting.

However, the Fairfax Health District’s testing positivity rate has declined from a seven-day rolling average of 34.1% on Jan. 10 to 29.9% as of Friday (Jan. 14), even with the number of tests reported increasing over that time frame.

Fairfax Health District COVID-19 testing positivity rate as of Jan. 18, 2022 (via Virginia Department of Health)

With 1,595 cases added today (Monday), the district, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, has recorded a total of 157,537 Covid cases, 4,379 hospitalizations, and 1,267 deaths during the pandemic.

Signs started to emerge last week that coronavirus infections may be peaking in the D.C. area and other East Coast cities where the omicron variant first surged in the U.S. The rapid rise and decline in cases echoes what other countries have seen from the variant, though health experts warn that relaxing precautions too soon could lead to another uptick.

All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Jan. 18, 2022 (via Virginia Department of Health)

Notably, the drop in cases hasn’t translated into a drop in hospitalizations. In Fairfax County, the rate of hospitalizations related to Covid has stayed relatively stable over the past month, with the seven-day average hovering around five to six cases since the beginning of the year.

Virginia hospitals are reporting a weekly average of 3,871 Covid patients — more than at any other point in the pandemic. The majority of those patients are unvaccinated people, who are being hospitalized at 4.2 times the rate of their fully vaccinated counterparts.

After increasing with their expansion to younger children and the introduction of booster shots in the fall, the pace of vaccinations has slowed in the Fairfax Health District since the winter holidays, the Fairfax County Health Department’s vaccine dashboard indicates.

The 945,418 district residents who have gotten at least one dose constitute 79.9% of the total population, including 89.4% of people 18 and older. The percentage of adults is actually slightly behind Virginia as a whole (89.8%).

In the Fairfax Health District, 837,068 residents — 70.7% of the population and 79.9% of adults — are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

According to the VDH, 392,916 Fairfax County residents have gotten a booster shot or third dose. That amounts to 34.2% of the population, including 42.8% of adults.

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Expected snowfall for D.C. area on Jan. 16-17 (via National Weather Service/Twitter)

(Updated at 11:55 a.m.) A Winter Weather Advisory has been issued for Fairfax County, as the D.C. area prepares for its second snowstorm of the year.

In effect from 1 p.m. today (Sunday) to 1 a.m. tomorrow (Monday), the alert warns of mixed precipitation that will create slippery, hazardous road conditions.

The National Weather Service anticipates snow accumulations of 1 to 3 inches and one-tenth of an inch of ice, along with wind gusts that could reach speeds of 45 miles per hour. With temperatures expected to drop below freezing tonight, travel could be affected through tomorrow morning.

The Virginia Department of Transportation began pretreating roads with brine on Friday (Jan. 14) and mobilized snow plow crews this morning, deploying more than 3,800 pieces of equipment throughout Northern Virginia, according to a 10 a.m. snow update.

“Plan your trips now to avoid all nonessential travel on Sunday into Monday, especially during the height of the storm, to avoid deteriorating conditions and to allow crews room to work,” VDOT said.

Fairfax County Public Schools has canceled all activities on school grounds after 1 p.m.

Fairfax Connector plans to continue operating regular Sunday service, but detours could be implemented along some routes starting at 3 p.m.

After the Jan. 3 snowstorm took out power for about 500,000 households across the state, including tens of thousands of people in Fairfax County, Dominion Energy says crews and contractors from as far away as Louisiana and Oklahoma will be on hand to assist with its emergency response.

“Our crews are ready to once again rise to any challenge this storm will bring,” Charlene Whitfield, Dominion’s senior vice president of power delivery, said in a news release. “Customers should prepare, as well, so they can remain safe until our work is done.”

Dominion advises avoiding downed power lines and reporting outages through its website or to 1-866-DOM-HELP (1-866-366-4357) to ensure the fastest possible response.

Map via National Weather Service/Twitter

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Another winter storm is brewing, potentially bringing 3 to 4 inches of snow to Fairfax County on Sunday and Monday (Jan. 16-17).

The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Watch for the D.C. area, including Fairfax County. The alert will take effect at 1 p.m. on Sunday and last through 7 a.m. Monday, when the snow is  expected to turn into a wintry mix with sleet and freezing rain.

The NWS projects total snow accumulations of 1 to 3 inches as the most likely scenario, though up to 5 inches could be possible. The forecast also includes up to an one-tenth of an inch of ice accumulation and wind gusts that could reach 45 miles per hour.

“Snow may fall at 1 to 3 inches per hour late Sunday afternoon and early Sunday evening, resulting in
nearly impassable roads,” the alert says, warning that slippery and hazardous road conditions could affect Monday’s commute.

Preparations for the coming storm are underway, with the Virginia Department of Transportation treating roads throughout Northern Virginia today.

“Since dry conditions are expected, we are able to brine throughout Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties,” VDOT spokesperson Kathleen Leonard told FFXnow. “Drivers will start to see those white brine lines, which really just gives us a little bit of time at the beginning of the storm, preventing ice from bonding to the pavement.”

Leonard says snow trucks will be staged tomorrow (Saturday) so that plowing operations can begin once the area gets about two inches of snow.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who will be officially succeeded by Glenn Youngkin tomorrow, declared a state of emergency today in anticipation of the storm.

“Declaring a state of emergency now allows our emergency responders to prepare, and to move supplies and equipment where they expect to need them the most,” Northam said. “This also gives Governor-elect Youngkin the ability to respond to any storm needs swiftly. I urge Virginians to take this storm seriously and make preparations now.”

VDOT and the Virginia State Police are both advising people to avoid traveling during the storm, though the police agency says all available troopers will be on patrol to respond to crashes and disabled drivers.

While schools will be closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Fairfax County Public Schools says students and staff should bring their computers home today in case a snow day is needed next week.

Any snow days will include virtual learning, because the school system already used its five designated “traditional” snow days after a snowstorm slammed the D.C. region last week, disrupting transportation and power networks.

Dropping up to 3 inches of snow per hour, Winter Storm Frida affected 58,000 miles of roadway across Virginia and took out electricity for approximately 500,000 households, according to VDOT, which is part of a multi-agency review of the state’s response after hundreds of motorists were stranded for hours on I-95.

In Fairfax County, snowfall totals on Jan. 3 ranged from 4.5 inches in Herndon to 11.8 inches in Franconia.

Photo via National Weather Service

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The U.S. Supreme Court (via Geoff Livingston/Flickr)

(Updated on 1/14/2022 at 4:30 p.m.) The Fairfax County School Board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a former student’s sexual assault lawsuit, a move that could reshape how the federal law against sexual violence in schools is interpreted.

A petition filed by the school board on Dec. 30 argues that public school systems can’t be held liable for sexual harassment and assault unless officials knew an assault took place and could have prevented it.

The lawsuit was initiated in May 2018 by a former Oakton High School student, identified as Jane Doe, who says Fairfax County Public Schools mishandled her report of being sexually assaulted by another student on a school band trip in 2017.

The school board is now seeking to reverse an appeals court’s order of a new trial in the case.

“Funding recipients are rightly held liable when their own conduct intentionally causes harassment,” the petition says. “But Title IX liability rightfully does not, under this Court’s precedents, extend to situations where a recipient does not actually know of harassment or when its actions cause no harassment.”

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in public education programs and activities. Doe’s lawsuit argues that FCPS violated the law by ignoring reports of her assault, discouraging her from taking legal action, and failing to ensure her safety.

A U.S. District Court jury found in August 2019 that a sexual assault took place and harmed Doe’s educational experience, but the school board couldn’t be held liable under Title IX, because officials didn’t have “actual knowledge” that the assault had occurred.

Jury members’ reported confusion over the term “actual knowledge” — whether school officials need direct evidence of an assault or just a report of one — led Public Justice, the nonprofit representing Jane Doe, to appeal the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

A three-judge panel ruled in June that a sexual assault report meets the legal standard and ordered a retrial.

However, FCPS asked the appeals court to stay its order for a new trial in September, signaling that it planned to petition the Supreme Court.

In a statement to FFXnow, FCPS maintained that the school board “could not have foreseen the assault, did not cause it, and could not have prevented it”:

Fairfax County Public Schools is committed to upholding Title IX and firmly believes that every student deserves an education free from harassment or discrimination. The decision to pursue this legal avenue has nothing to do with challenging this critical civil rights law.

The question in this case is only about whether Congress intended America’s public schools, and the teachers that work in them, to be held financially responsible for student-on-student misconduct that they had no way to foresee and did not cause.  We believe the law should be applied the same way nationwide, and only the Supreme Court has the power to restore that uniformity.

To fail to challenge the Fourth Circuit’s ruling would be to let down public school educators the length and breadth of the U.S., and especially in Virginia, during a time when they need support more than ever. In addition, to roll over in the face of costly and unfair lawsuits would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars and would set a worrying precedent for school divisions facing similar lawsuits now and in the future.

However, Public Justice says the school board’s position is at odds with its claims to support students’ safety and civil rights, essentially suggesting that schools can only be held liable for sexual violence if it reoccurs.

“[FCPS] has now asked the Supreme Court to gut crucial protections for Jane Doe, for Fairfax students, and for young survivors across the country, pushing a misinterpretation of Title IX that the U.S. Department of Justice has called ‘absurd,'” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky said by email. “We are confident, though, that the Court will deny the cert petition and Jane will have the chance to be heard by a jury.”

Brodsky added that Doe isn’t seeking to hold FCPS responsible for the assault itself, but rather, for how it responded to her report.

Public Justice has not filed a response to the school board’s petition yet. The Supreme Court docket shows that a motion to extend the deadline for a response to April 8 was granted on Tuesday (Jan. 11).

Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools, a nonprofit that says it was founded by survivors, parents, and FCPS students, has launched a petition demanding that the school board drop its appeal.

“We the citizens demand that FCPS withdraw the baseless appeal in Doe v. Fairfax County School Board and appropriately respond to sexual assault in school,” the petition says. “Since FCPS continues its culture of cover-up and indifference, we ask the Virginia Attorney General and the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into FCPS and bring accountability once and for all.”

Photo via Geoff Livingston/Flickr

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Person counts dollar bills (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

A pilot program that will give monthly cash assistance to select low-income residents is in development in Fairfax County.

While eligibility criteria, payment amounts, and other details are still being determined, the county has allocated $1.5 million to the effort from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, as noted in a stimulus update to the Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee yesterday (Tuesday).

First proposed at a health and human services committee meeting on June 29, the pilot will help people improve their financial situation by providing an additional, flexible source of income, county staff say.

“At its core, it’s an economic mobility initiative, but it’s also an anti-poverty initiative, and it’s certainly innovative,” Deputy County Executive Chris Leonard told the board last summer.

If it implements the pilot, Fairfax County will join a nationwide experiment with basic income programs that has also drawn in Arlington County and Alexandria. Research from around the world suggests the initiatives boost people’s happiness, health, and economic stability without limiting employment.

Fairfax County plans to model its pilot on the nonprofit UpTogether, which gives underserved individuals and families access to cash investments through an online platform that doubles as a social network.

UpTogether’s emphasis on trusting recipients to make their own decisions and building community deviates from traditional social services, which deliver vital resources like food or housing but often come with conditions, such as work requirements.

Fairfax County is looking at the nonprofit UpTogether as a model for its proposed basic income pilot program (via Fairfax County)

It’s the difference between helping people survive poverty and giving them the tools to escape it, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay explained, suggesting families, particularly those with young children, as a possible target population for the pilot.

“Part of what I think our obligation to do is to stop this generational poverty that seems to happen everywhere in the country,” McKay said. “If you’re going to break the trends of generational poverty, you somehow have to get to the youth.” Read More

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