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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Pedro Benedito Chimo Mandriz (Courtesy)

When Pedro Benedito Chimo Mandriz’s family returned to their home country of Angola, he stayed in the U.S. to pursue his dream of running his own restaurant.

Years later, the Lorton baker has taken a step to turning that dream into a reality after starting a pastry business in 2021 with the help of Escala, a rebooted counseling and business assistance program run by the nonprofit Northern Virginia Family Service.

Mandriz, 29, is one of 100 people who have benefited from Escala during the pandemic.

While working part-time at Manchester Bagel in Franconia, he took a class with Escala and launched Freaking Good Cakes, which specializes in German fruit cakes but also offers cupcakes and custom orders, all made out of his home.

“I was having the idea that to have or own a business in America, the only way is by doing…loans, and they showed me, no, that’s not the only way,” Mandriz said. “It helped open my eyes.”

Escala started in 2001 and stopped in 2017 before being rebooted during the pandemic. Its name comes from the Spanish verb escalar, meaning to climb, a nod to the program’s bilingual services.

The program’s small business counselor, Liga Brige, helps entrepreneurs develop their business ideas with marketing and financial assessments, frequently helping startups launch from owners’ homes.

“The majority of businesses established during those past years were usually in construction, in day care…in cleaning businesses and food,” Brige said.

During the pandemic, Escala’s participants have typically focused on the culinary arts, including female food service workers who realize they can prepare certain foods out of their homes, Brige says.

Known as food cottage laws, Virginia’s code lets private homes make some low-risk items without a food inspection, from baked goods to candies, dry seasonings, roasted coffee, and more.

“There are laws which allow you to produce from home certain foods, certain products which do not require a lot of licensing,” Brige said.

Most participants in Escala are Hispanic women, typically aged 36 to 55. Many were professional chefs in the hospitality industry and affected by the pandemic, while others were cooking out of their homes.

Escala’s successes so far include:

The program relies on government funding, and Northern Virginia Family Service plans to seek more grant money to expand Escala from Fairfax and Arlington counties for their upcoming fiscal years, which start in July.

Liga currently serves as the one-stop shop coordinator, but she hopes to have another counselor provide assistance to reach as many industries as possible.

Restricted to low-income adults in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland, the program offers counseling and workshops for free. A nine-week course costs $300.

Mandriz’s ultimate goal is to run his own restaurant that serves food from his country. His advice to new entrepreneurs? Take risks and listen to others’ expertise.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Most of the people that want to go into business…they should be open to [listening] to other people’s information. They’re going to have a solid ground where they can build their business.”

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Traffic safety advocates from across the D.C. area have banded together to urge local officials to make improvements that they believe could help prevent the next death of a pedestrian or cyclist.

The campaign specifically focuses on the Route 7 corridor around Baileys Crossroads and Seven Corners after 68-year-old Nguyet Ly was hit and killed when walking along a section of Leesburg Pike without a sidewalk on Dec. 13.

“The Route 7 corridor between these traffic hubs are among the most hazardous in Fairfax County,” said Phil Kemelor, Mason District board member for the community group Fairfax Families for Safe Streets.

Fairfax FSS has partnered with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, CASA, Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling, and other concerned individuals to ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to help.

In a letter to VDOT, the organizations recommend installing a continuous sidewalk or multi-use path on Leesburg Pike, adding crosswalks across all side streets, and prohibiting vehicles from parking within 20 feet of a driveway or intersection, which they say leads to blocked sightlines for drivers.

The letter also notes that the curbside lane where Ly was walking measures 16 feet in width, encouraging speeding compared to lanes that typically range from 10 to 13 feet.

“The Rt. 7 corridor in the Culmore community is a notoriously dangerous place for people walking, biking, and accessing the bus stops,” Sonya Breehey, Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Northern Virginia advocacy manager, wrote in an email. “The recent fatality is just one of many people who are struck and either killed or left with serious injuries in this community.”

While this campaign focuses on the Mason District, Fairfax FSS says the safety issues on Route 7, including insufficient sidewalks and crosswalks, can be seen elsewhere in the county as well and have contributed to other fatal crashes.

A map of pedestrian deaths (red circles) and injuries (orange circles) due to vehicle crashes (courtesy Fairfax Families for Safe Street)

Based on five years of VDOT data, the group identified the following as the most dangerous roads in Fairfax County, in addition to Route 7:

  • Route 1
  • Route 29
  • Route 50
  • Little River Turnpike
  • Backlick Road
  • Telegraph Road
  • Shreve Road at the Washington and Old Dominion Trail
  • Eastbound sections of Columbia Turnpike
  • Old Keene Road/Franconia Road

The data spanned September 2016 to September 2021 and involved over 100 crashes where pedestrians or cyclists were severely injured or killed.

“Nearly 50% of the fatalities are among those who are 60 years of age and older,” Kemelor said in an email.

Fairfax Families for Safe Streets has also compiled a map of “near misses” reported by pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers to show where streets could be upgraded. People can add to the map by completing an online survey.

Ly was the 13th pedestrian killed in a traffic crash last year in Fairfax County, which ended 2021 with 14 such deaths after an Annandale resident was hit by a car on Route 123 in Tysons and died on Dec. 30. The county also recorded three bicyclist deaths last year.

Police reported the first pedestrian fatality of 2022 on Tuesday (Jan. 18). The crash occurred on Jan. 8 on Route 29 at Forum Drive, and Joel Gonzalez, 22, of Fairfax later succumbed to his injuries while in a hospital.

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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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The Fairfax County School Board is looking at adding more holidays, including Diwali and Yom Kippur, to a proposed calendar for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

The board reviewed a proposed calendar from Fairfax County Public Schools staff during a work session yesterday (Tuesday), with a vote on the matter scheduled for their next regular meeting on Jan. 27.

The proposed 14-holiday schedule would begin July 1 and have a two-week winter break, one-week spring break, and days off for students through professional work days. It would mirror neighboring school districts’ holidays, a staff presentation showed.

FCPS staff recommended adding Diwali and Yom Kippur as full holidays with Rosh Hashanah as a day off for students. Staff would have the option to use it for professional development or also take the day off at their own discretion.

The proposed calendar includes an observance of Eid al-Fitr in 2023, even though it falls outside of school hours. The Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan will begin at sundown on Friday, April 21 to sundown on Saturday, April 22 next year.

FCPS is officially observing those four holidays for the first time this academic year, but the school board stopped short of granting students days off.

Last year’s calendar development proved unusually tense, with numerous residents voicing concerns about the process and local religious leaders expressing disappointment from a diversity standpoint.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand said yesterday that he accepted responsibility for a calendar process last year that was divisive and hurtful but added that he thought the calendar process this year was enhanced. 

It is complex. There’s no perfect calendar process. I think this process was better than the process we had before,” Brabrand said.

This time around, FCPS enlisted a calendar committee, consisting of school staff, students, parents and associations, to weigh in on the changes. FCPS Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said several faith-based groups were invited, but not all chose to participate.

School board members wondered whether staff assigned different weights for priorities identified through a community input process that included surveying staff, students, and families. Brabrand said the proposal wasn’t a formula, but the staff’s best solution.

Despite a nearly two-hour long work session, school board members called for clearer justification from staff regarding which holidays will be recognized and adding Veterans Day as a day off for students.

“We want for this to not come across as arbitrary to our community, that people can take a look at the same data and kind of come close to the same conclusion,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

School board members suggested that the survey feedback wasn’t incorporated as well as it could have been.

Guided by U.S. Supreme Court rulings throughout the last century, public school holidays for religious occasions must be justified with a secular reason, such as high absence rates.

Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said the proposed calendar was driven by FCPS’ operational needs, not one that reflects community feedback.

“We need to work on this calendar more to ensure that that has that mutual respect and inclusivity of all in it,” she said.

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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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Face masks (via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

Fairfax County Public Schools plans to maintain its mask mandate despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order removing masking requirements in schools across the state.

The school system was one of several in the Commonwealth, particularly Northern Virginia, that pushed back against the freshly inaugurated governor’s order over the weekend.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the decision was made in alignment with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools,” Brabrand wrote in a message to the community on Sunday (Jan. 16). “We know our students are best served by in-person instruction. Adhering to our layered prevention strategies, especially universal masking, keep our schools open and safe places for students to learn.’

In his executive order — one of several instituted after he took office on Saturday (Jan. 15) — Youngkin said that the universal masking requirements in schools has provided “inconsistent health benefits” and inflicted “notable harm.”

“There is no greater priority than the health and welfare of Virginia’s children,” the executive order reads. “Under Virginia law, parents, not the government, have the fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care of their children.”

Brabrand did note that the school system is reviewing Youngkin’s executive order and will update the community about any changes to COVID-19 practices and protocol if they occur.

The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics concurred with the school system’s decision.

“Face masks remain safe and reliable, and children have demonstrated their ability to wear them effectively,” the chapter’s statement reads, adding that masks allow schools to remain open.

The Democratic Party of Virginia called the governor’s actions “illegal” and an attempt to “appease the far-right instead of protecting Virginia’s children.”

“It’s a sad situation when local school boards in Virginia understand the law and the science more than the governor of Virginia does,” DPVA Chair Susan Swecker said.

But Youngkin says that while the CDC recommends masks, research has found no statistically significant link between mandatory masking and reducing transmission of COVID-19. He says that many children do not wear masks correctly and that the practice produces a “demoralizing” effect.

The executive order will go into effect on Jan. 24.

FCPS has reported 620 COVID-19 cases after five days of in-person instruction this year. A little over 1,500 students have been in quarantine this month.

Other school districts that plan to maintain their masking requirements include Arlington County, Alexandria City, Fauquier County, Loudoun County, Manassas City, Prince William County, Stafford County, and Spotsylvania County.

It is unclear how Youngkin will legally enforce the lifting of the mask requirement, but because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, localities do not have powers outside of those enumerated by the state.

Photo via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

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