Fairfax County Public School students get onto a bus (via FCPS)

Over a month into the current school year, Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with two key issues: how to recruit and retain staff, especially in special education and transportation, and how to feed students.

FCPS officials have said shortages in those areas are affecting the rest of the country, while supply chain issues have resulted in more students getting fewer choices to pick from in school cafeterias, thanks in part to free meals becoming available to all students.

When it comes to staff retention, the Fairfax County School Board approved some immediate relief at its regular meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23), increasing seasoned bus drivers’ salaries by 2.5%. The change will show up in their paychecks starting Oct. 23.

The change excludes new bus drivers who got a pay boost in August when the board voted to increase starting hourly rates from $19.58 to $22.91.

“Attract is one thing, but retain is something altogether different,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

In consultation with stakeholders, FCPS is conducting an in-depth market compensation study that it plans to finish by the end of the school year. The need to retain experienced bus drivers will only grow in urgency, as 25% will become eligible to retire.

FCPS also offers a $3,000 signing bonus, and Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the changes have boosted applications from about five to seven per week to an additional 20-50 each week.

Meanwhile, as of Sept. 15, FCPS had 133 teaching vacancies, nearly half of them in special education, according to Karen Corbett-Sanders, the school board’s Mount Vernon District representative.

Brabrand has suggested that state requirements for special education teachers need to be adjusted to ease the process for existing teachers, saying Thursday that he plans to bring the school board more information later to help its advocacy efforts.

School systems nationwide have reported bus driver deficits as potential hires turn to higher-paying commercial jobs, among other factors.

However, the commercial driving sector is experiencing labor shortages of its own, which are colliding with supply chain disruptions and increased student demand to create problems in school cafeterias.

In its annual “Opening of Schools” report, FCPS says it is now serving some 138,000 students per day — about 28,000 more than before the pandemic. Brabrand reported on Thursday that the school system distributed a record number of meals the previous week, when 150,000 students used its food services.

Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted that families have raised concerns and wondered about the quality of the food. Department of Financial Services Assistant Superintendent Leigh Burden said the issues have affected the number of the options available to students, but not the quality.

“We’ve had to double down on some of our oldies but goodies like pizza, which maybe doesn’t make students upset, but we want to continue to fully implement the food and nutrition health guidelines,” Brabrand said.

Anderson said knowing about the supply chain issues could help families better understand the situation that FCPS is facing.

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(Updated at 9:45 a.m.) FCPS is ramping up efforts to provide on-site testing and prepare for vaccinations for elementary school-aged kids, including by enlisting a third party that hasn’t been publicly identified yet.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines for kids ages 5-11, Pfizer says its vaccine is safe for that age range, and it could obtain authorization in October.

That will open up vaccinations to an additional 87,693 FCPS students, according to Melanie Meren, who represents Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board.

As part of its preparations, FCPS is developing a survey for families to determine what their needs are and how it can best respond, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Michelle Boyd said at a school board meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23).

The survey will ask questions such as:

  • Whether parents would be okay with students getting vaccinated during the school day without their presence
  • Whether they would be interested in participating in clinics with their children
  • Whether they would prefer their primary medical provider to vaccinate students

Meren told FFXnow that the survey is a step in the right direction, but there needs to be more done.

She is proposing that FCPS work with community partners, including public health officials and medical providers, to develop a plan for how to use different resources like bloodmobile services to deliver vaccinations.

Her motion calls for convening “community stakeholders to plan for mass distribution of children’s vaccines in Fairfax County, so that vaccines are accessible to families in accordance with families’ personal decisions about vaccinating children.”

Meren noted that pediatricians’ offices are already overwhelmed, and she wants FCPS to look at ways to be best prepared, noting that schools have had to take on an unprecedented public health role.

“The school division is being tasked with really stepping up in ways that have never been seen before in terms of public health,” Meren said at the school board meeting.

Meren also proposed that the school board direct Brabrand to create a Department of Special Services staff position to help the assistant superintendent manage public health-related work in FCPS.

Since both items were introduced as new business, meaning that they weren’t up for discussion or action, the school board will address them at its next regular meeting on Oct. 7.

At the same time, FCPS is continuing to tackle issues related to its existing COVID-19 health procedures, primarily when it comes to disruptions to in-person learning.

“We’ve already got some kids entering their second quarantine,” FCPS Superintendent Brabrand said during the school board meeting. “28 days without a teacher or instruction is not something we can do.”

Out of roughly 178,000 students, FCPS has recorded 818 positive COVID-19 cases in August and September as of yesterday (Sunday).

However, as of Sept. 15, around 2,900 students have had to stay home due to potentially coming into contact with people who have contracted COVID-19, according to FCPS.

While noting that student transmission of the virus is low, Brabrand reiterated at the school board meeting that FCPS is continuing to look at ways to improve its COVID-19 communication policies and procedures.

Braddock District School Board Representative Megan McLaughlin said she wants FCPS to show it’s serious about helping minimize the time that students are not in school, noting that Loudoun County Public Schools has reduced its mandated quarantine period from 14 to 10 days.

Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu recommended 14 days at a Board of Supervisors committee meeting last Tuesday (Sept. 21), stating that the 10-day alternative allowed by the CDC carries an estimated 10% increase in the risk of post-quarantine transmission.

Starting this week, FCPS is offering an online platform where students who have to be paused, quarantined, or isolated due to a COVID-19 infection or exposure can live-stream in-person classes.

However, FCPS has otherwise declined to expand its virtual options, despite requests from many community members, including several speakers who delivered remarks during the community participation portion of Thursday’s board meeting.

“We simply don’t have the staff,” Brabrand said. “We don’t even have the staff right now to operate full in person. We’re strained to provide staffing for the limited virtual that we have, per CDC guidelines for students with diagnosed medical and health needs.”

He added that the area school systems like Prince George’s and Arlington counties that have offered broader virtual programs have significant wait lists or are filling up to 40 to 50% of their staff positions with substitute teachers.

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Fairfax County Public Schools has asked a federal appeals court to postpone an ordered retrial of a former Oakton High School student’s sexual assault lawsuit, setting up a possible escalation of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school system plans to file a petition for a writ of certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court take up the case, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit legal organization that represents the student, who has only been identified as Jane Doe.

Public Justice told FFXnow that it learned about those intentions Monday morning (Sept. 20), though it’s still holding out hope that the Fairfax County School Board will opt not to file the petition.

The law firm warns that, if FCPS files a petition and the appeal is accepted, it could set the stage for a reevaluation of Title IX protections against gender discrimination, which have traditionally been used to address school-based sexual violence, by the same court that allowed Texas to essentially ban abortions earlier this month.

“Fairfax would be asking them to severely undermine students’ civil rights,” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky, the plaintiff’s counsel, said. “I think there’s a real question for Fairfax families whether they want the legacy of Fairfax schools to be undermining equality and safety for students.”

Filed in May 2018, the lawsuit argues that FCPS violated Doe’s Title IX rights by failing to ensure her safety and provide support after she reported that an older, male student sexually assaulted her when they were on a bus during the five-day school band trip.

The school board’s Sept. 9 regular meeting agenda includes a closed session to consult with legal counsel about the case, known as “Jane Doe v. Fairfax County School Board et al.”

FCPS confirmed that it has requested the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to stay its June 16 ruling ordering a new trial in Doe’s lawsuit over school officials’ response to her report of being sexually assaulted by a fellow student during a band trip in 2017.

With one judge dissenting, the three-person panel reversed a U.S. District Court jury’s verdict in favor of FCPS, arguing that the lower court had failed to accurately define for the jury the legal standard to determine if the school system had “actual knowledge” of the reported assault.

“As the divergent opinions of the Fourth Circuit show, the issues in this case could have nationwide and potentially far-reaching implications,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement. “For that reason, we have asked the court to stay or suspend the effective date of its ruling, pending further review.”

FCPS said it had no further comment at this time, including on whether it plans to petition the Supreme Court. Read More

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McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on their first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is revising a number of procedures around COVID-19 contact tracing, quarantining, and pausing, even as it maintains that case numbers remain proportionally very low in schools.

School officials are actively exploring their options for expanding student vaccination requirements, including a possible mandate once the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorize it for kids 5 and older, which could happen as early as the end of October.

However, FCPS would have to wait for the Virginia General Assembly to act before it can require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students under state law, which gives authority for determining mandatory school immunizations to the legislature and a state health regulatory board.

“If I had [the power to do this], I’d recommend right now to this board mandatory vaccinations for our students upon full authorization from the FDA,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said at a school board work session yesterday (Tuesday). “If we have the burden of educating kids, it should be determined by officials closest to schools who should be vaccinated and not vaccinated and not wait for the state to give us permission to do so.”

At the moment, officials said they are in talks with legal counsel about expanding the existing vaccine mandate for high school student athletes to other secondary school extracurricular activities, such as theater programs.

According to Brabrand’s presentation to the school board, 0.33% of staff, students, and visitors — 677 individuals in total — reported testing positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 15. Only 24 cases involved transmission within one of the 198 schools and offices in the county, Brabrand said.

Since Aug. 1, 936 cases have been reported to FCPS, according to the school system’s case dashboard. Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu told the Board of Supervisors at a health and human services committee meeting yesterday that the county is seeing 30 to 40 cases among students per day on average, with some days going as high as 50 cases.

While Addo-Ayensu also said the majority of transmission has occurred in the general community, not in schools, each case has a ripple effect as additional staff and students who might have been exposed to the virus have been subjected to isolation, quarantine, or in-person learning pauses.

Between Aug. 13 and Sept. 15, 2,905 students — or 1.6% of the student body — have been paused, meaning they were COVID positive or a potential close contact and had to remain out of school during contact-tracing investigations. Nearly half were elementary school students.

1.8% of staff, or 502 individuals, have been paused as well during that time period. Read More

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The Fairfax County School Board discusses a first-year interim report of a two-year review of the district’s special education program (via FCPS)

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.

An interim report for a special education review compared suspension rates for students with disabilities and other students (via American Institutes of Research/FCPS)

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.

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand presents a proposal for virtual learning for students who must quarantine due to having COVID-19 or close contact with someone with the virus (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools could start providing livestreamed or recorded classes for students who can’t be in school buildings due to COVID-19 later this month.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the Fairfax County School Board on Thursday (Sept. 9) that administrators are developing a plan to let students attend their regular classes remotely when they have to quarantine, isolate, or pause in-person learning in response to testing positive for COVID-19 or being identified as a possible close contact of someone with the virus.

“We’re looking at several different options to get the important instructional content to our students, so it could be livestreaming. It could be teachers recording the lesson and posting the lesson,” FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio said at the meeting.

As of Thursday, FCPS has seen 555 reported cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 1, including 432 student infections. While that’s just 0.24% of the district’s 178,000-plus student population, the disruption in learning that comes with each positive case can affect entire classes or sports teams.

In addition to requiring isolation for students who test positive and quarantines for any unvaccinated close contacts, FCPS has been pausing in-school activities for students who could potentially be close contacts so the Fairfax County Public Health Department can conduct contact-tracing investigations.

“Fully vaccinated students who are identified as a close contact with someone with COVID-19 do not need to remain home as long as they do not have symptoms,” the school district says in its current health and safety guidance.

Last week, FCPS introduced a new system for electronically reporting students’ vaccination statuses in an effort to speed up the contact-tracing process.

Brabrand told the school board that FCPS is examining whether the 14-day quarantine period for unvaccinated students who come into close contact with a COVID-positive individual could be reduced to 10 or seven days.

Five of the seven COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred in schools this academic year so far involved athletics, according to Brabrand. FCPS announced on Aug. 30 that it will require student athletes to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, effective Nov. 8.

A state law requires all public schools to provide in-person education for the 2021-2022 school year but allows for some exceptions. If a district offers online education for some students, it’s legally required to do so for all, such as students with disabilities and those with language needs, Brabrand said.

FCPS currently has a virtual program for a limited number of students with documented medical needs.

Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin raised concerns about the lack of a virtual learning option for elementary school students, who remain ineligible for the vaccine.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of emails from parents,” she said, pointing to Prince George’s County in Maryland. “They were offering it to 12,000 kids, and right now we only offer it to 400 kids.”

If approved, the classroom live-streaming option would be exclusively for students who aren’t able to attend school in-person for COVID-related reasons, as stated in Brabrand’s presentation and previously confirmed by FCPS officials.

FCPS officials said that, due to limited staffing, the live-streamed classes wouldn’t be interactive like last school year, when the district adopted a concurrent learning model where teachers worked with in-person and online students simultaneously. The school board largely balked at the idea of continuing that experiment into the new year.

Under the live-streaming approach, teachers could assist students through email correspondence. FCPS is reviewing whether office hours or other forms of outreach could be involved.

FCPS officials expect to present more details of their plans to the school board at a work session on Sept. 21.

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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.”

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McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on their first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year (via FCPS)

As COVID-19 cases rise in Fairfax County Public Schools, so have concerns from parents, students, and staff, particularly when it comes to the cafeteria.

More than 205,000 students and staff in Fairfax County went back to school on Aug. 23 after 18 months of mostly remote learning. Excitement about seeing friends and having in-person classes mingled with frustration over transportation issues and pandemic-related anxieties.

After more than a week of classes, some community members have expressed increasing alarm at the sight of crowded cafeterias during lunch, jam-packed school hallways, and what they feel is a lack of oversight by FCPS administrators.

FCPS has seen a clear uptick in COVID-19 cases since classes began, according to its dashboard, which displays cases that are self-reported by students and staff and shared with the Fairfax County Health Department.

As of yesterday (Wednesday), the school system had recorded 351 new cases in August, including 266 cases involving students and 84 among staff. 252 cases have come in since schools reopened on Aug. 23.

While this remains a small percentage compared to the division’s overall population, which is the largest of any Virginia school district, the numbers still have many worried.

An online petition urging FCPS to offer a virtual option for more students has now garnered close to 5,000 signatures, almost double what it had in mid-August.

FCPS has a virtual program, but enrollment for this year was limited to students who personally have a documented medical need. Eligibility wasn’t extended to students based on health concerns in their family or household.

“FCPS believes that students learn best in-person,” an FCPS spokesperson said. “We are focused on providing a safe and positive learning experience for all students.”

Lunch time has emerged as a particular concern, since students have to remove the face masks that are otherwise required inside school buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterize mealtime at schools as a “high-risk situation.”

In particular, elementary school students are at risk.

While about 80% of middle and high school aged students in Fairfax County have gotten at least one vaccine dose, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible. At this point, it’s not expected that vaccines will be available for those children until this winter if not early next year.

A parent of a student at Westbriar Elementary School in Vienna told FFXnow that, during the first week, she saw students “elbow-to-elbow” inside the small cafeteria, eating and talking without masks on. The school has an outdoor space with a tent, the parent says, but it isn’t being used enough.

The student said they “don’t feel safe” during lunch and snack time in school.

The parent doesn’t fault the young students, but rather, the administrators for not adequately monitoring or providing better options. Read More

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