Fairfax County Public Schools is conducting the first public review of its special education services since 2013 after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional learning with remote classes that disproportionately affected students with disabilities.
Presented to the school board at a work session yesterday (Tuesday), findings from the first year of the review highlight families’ frustrations with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and suggest the school system disproportionately disciplines special education students, especially Black and Hispanic children.
Requested by the school board in December 2019 and officially launched on Nov. 10, 2020, the interim report states explicitly that the review “does not address special education programming during COVID-19.”
The contracted firm — the Arlington-headquartered nonprofit American Institutes for Research — said FCPS decided to focus on collecting data for normal school operations.
On the positive side, surveys of both staff and parents found that 87% of the over 18,500 parents who responded “agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school,” frequently noting the caring nature of instructional staff and expressing appreciation for employees.
The review showed that, from 2016-2021, FCPS had about nine or 10 students per special education teacher, a lower ratio than the state average of 15-to-1. The district has also taken steps to improve communication with school staff, including by appointing an assistant ombudsman for special education in 2019, the report said.
While researchers stressed that this is an initial update and the conclusions aren’t final, the report found several areas of concern:
- Families voiced a lack of transparency and accountability about Individualized Education Program goals and progress
- Suspension and expulsion rates were higher for certain races than others
- Parents suggested that the IEP process for getting student input on post-high school transition plans “may be driven by compliance rather than student needs”
- Novice teachers lack preparation to work with students with disabilities, an area that researchers are investigating further
- Staff reported feeling overwhelmed by case management, paperwork, and meeting duties, affecting FCPS’ ability to effectively recruit and retain teachers
- The amount and quality of communication between parents and staff varies by school
- A sampling showed more than a third of IEPs had no written evidence of parent input
“‘It’s so sad.’ That’s what I wrote all over this document,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.
In addition to discussing how to address the issues raised by the report, school board member after school board member raised concerns about the review process, urging researchers to be specific in their recommendations by looking at subgroups and other factors. Officials suggested broad takeaways could dilute matters and not help families.
“My fear overall about this is that this is a one-sized-fits-all special ed audit,” Laura Jane Cohen, the board’s Springfield District representative, said.
Researchers responded that they used a random sampling to collect their preliminary findings. They also noted constraints with interviewing kids, while expressing a willingness to consider changes.
The firm said it will go more in-depth during the second year of a $375,000-plus contract issued in October 2020.
FCPS Auditor General Esther Ko reminded the board that it has a fixed contract and the firm will work at no cost for three more months after its second year. If the board wants more changes, though, it could amend the contract or open another bidding process to look at other topics.
The board requested that Ko to evaluate possible changes to the review with American Institutes for Research for its audit committee to go over later.
Currently set to be completed next summer, the review will make recommendations to FCPS for how to improve services for students with disabilities and their families.
Two weeks into a new school year that was supposed to herald the full return of in-person learning, Fairfax County Public Schools is considering adding a new, limited option for virtual instruction in an effort to minimize disruptions related to COVID-19.
Under the proposal, which will be shared in more detail during the Fairfax County School Board’s meeting tomorrow (Thursday), students who are directed to isolate, quarantine, or pause in-person learning due a COVID-19 case would be allowed to attend their classes via live video streaming, FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult confirmed to FFXnow.
“We understand that students learn best in person and that being required to quarantine is not an ideal situation,” Moult said in a statement. “We are doing our best to find solutions for those who need to be out of the classroom.”
FCPS has not reported any outbreaks to the Virginia Department of Health since the beginning of August, but it has recorded 510 COVID-19 cases, including 397 cases among students, over the past six weeks, according to the district’s dashboard for the 2021-2022 academic year.
411 of those cases have come in since classes began on Aug. 23, and there were 160 cases in the first seven days of September, even with students getting both Friday (Sept. 3) and Monday (Sept. 6) off for Labor Day weekend.
According to FCPS, a student, staff member, or visitor testing positive for COVID-19 may prompt a pause to in-person instruction, sports, and other activities for individuals identified as potential close contacts so the Fairfax County Health Department can conduct an investigation, including contact tracing.
While the department has a team specifically dedicated to school-related cases, the start of school has brought an influx of COVID-19 infections, including ones acquired outside of school. That has stressed the system and led to investigations that sometimes take several days, the FCHD said in a blog post last Thursday (Sept. 2).
The length of the investigations is part of a growing list of frustrations with this school year, from bus delays and crowded cafeterias to communication issues that have resulted in students showing up for class when they’re supposed to stay at home.
FCPS announced last week that it worked with the county health department to implement a new system where parents can electronically confirm their children’s vaccination status to speed up the contact-tracing process and enable them to return to in-person classes more quickly.
The school system also said that student athletes will be required to get a COVID-19 vaccination to participate in winter and spring sports in part because the majority of pauses to in-person instruction for high school students have been triggered by exposure during athletic activities.
Just this week, Herndon High School postponed its football games against South Lakes High School that were scheduled for tomorrow and Friday (Sept. 10). Moult confirmed that the Herndon football team has been paused, necessitating the postponement.
WUSA9 reported last night that parents were notified on Aug. 30 that the entire Herndon football team had to stay home last week after a varsity player tested positive for COVID-19.
FCPS is offering some virtual instruction this year, but enrollment was strictly limited to students with a documented medical need to learn remotely. Officials told the school board on Aug. 24 that approximately 400 students were enrolled in the program, 42% of them students with disabilities.
While some families have advocated for FCPS to offer virtual learning more widely, the live classroom streaming option will only be available to students who are paused, isolating, or quarantined due to COVID-19 if it’s approved, Moult says.
“We are working with principals, teachers and teacher associations to finalize the details and should have this ready to share with families shortly,” Moult said. “We hope this will alleviate some of the concerns about potentially missing out on in-person instruction.”