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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After only five days of in-person instruction so far, Fairfax County Public Schools has reported 620 COVID-19 cases and quarantined 1,534 students this month.

FCPS has paused 11 classes since schools reopened after winter break on Monday (Jan. 10), spokesperson Julie Moult said in an email, meaning in-person learning was suspended to enable contact tracing.

Virtual classes kick in after three days of absences at the latest, Moult says.

Students with COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days, while those exposed must quarantine for five days, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidelines.

There have been 470 cases involving students, about half the number seen in all of December, according to a FCPS COVID-19 dashboard. For staff, there have been 143 COVID-19 cases and 247 quarantines this month.

The cases come after only one week of in-person classes for FCPS. Students’ two-week winter break in December was essentially extended by another week earlier this month due to winter weather, using the district’s entire allotment of traditional snow days for the school year.

Coronavirus cases have surged in the region and country, with an average case peaking at least three times as high as any other surge, which previously had been last winter.

This week, FCPS saw cases involving over five people at the following schools:

  • 11 students at Cub Run Elementary
  • Nine students and a staff member at Lake Braddock Secondary School
  • 24 students and one staff member at Madison High
  • 16 students at Oakton High
  • 13 students at Robinson Secondary School
  • Eight students and one staff member at Whitman Middle School
  • 10 students at South Lakes High

Last year, FCPS quarantined 47 staff and 1,411 students in November, and 324 staff and 3,603 students in December.

The slew of coronavirus cases are part of an ongoing surge in infections fueled by the omicron variant, with Fairfax County currently averaging over 2,400 cases a day.

In anticipation of an uptick in cases, FCPS shared a plan last week for handling faculty absences, even as officials reiterated a commitment to keeping classes in person.

The surge has affected other county government services as well. Citing a high number of staff vacancies due to COVID-19 cases, Fairfax County Public Library announced earlier this week that, starting on Jan. 17, all branches will be temporarily closed on Sundays and Mondays until April 1.

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand discusses plans to manage potential surges in COVID-19 infections when schools reopen (via FCPS/YouTube)

Updated at 4:05 p.m. — Fairfax County Public Schools will be closed again tomorrow (Friday) due to tonight’s anticipated snowfall, using its last allotted traditional snow day.

Fairfax County Public Schools reiterated its commitment to in-person instruction today (Thursday), even as it acknowledges that surging COVID-19 cases will likely result in staffing shortages.

In a message sent to families and staff, Superintendent Scott Brabrand shared a plan for managing the anticipated strain on teachers and other staff and minimizing potential disruptions once classes resume after winter break, which has now been extended by four days due to the snowy weather.

“These weeks ahead will challenge us all and we need to work together,” Brabrand said in a video. “We must expect that things will change often and we must be flexible. Most importantly, we must be understanding, patient, and come from a common expectation that this is not business as usual.”

With classroom supervision as a priority, FCPS plans to fill teacher vacancies with substitutes, other faculty or staff members, and volunteers with teaching experience from its central office and management staff.

However, if no one is available to cover for an absent teacher, schools could have one teacher lead two classes or combine multiple classes under a supervisor for asynchronous learning, where students work on assignments independently.

If as many as 11 to 25% of classrooms at a particular school have no dedicated teacher, the entire school would shift to asynchronous instruction, with students getting the option to access lessons in person or from home.

FCPS notes that it may not always be possible to continue providing a livestreaming option that was introduced in the fall for students who are required to pause, quarantine, or isolate due to a COVID-19 exposure or positive test.

Staffing shortages are expected to affect other school operations as well, particularly transportation. An unusually high deficit in bus drivers resulted in delays of up to an hour when the 2021-2022 academic year started in September.

“Expect that there will be delays in bus routes with more double-backs that may mean students will arrive after the bell,” FCPS says. “Schools will adjust instruction to ensure that no child is missing important classroom time.”

FCPS advises parents to drive their children to school or have them walk or bicycle if possible. The school system now has an app that tracks bus delays.

FCPS says meal services have not been affected so far, but if there are increased staff absences, it could switch to bagged lunches, rather than the usual cafeteria menus.

FFXnow asked FCPS for the number of teacher and other staff vacancies it currently has, but did not receive a response by press time.

“We will reassess, adapt, and adjust if needed,” Brabrand said. “I have faith that our FCPS family can and will get through this together.”

Health protocols implemented last year, including mask requirements, will remain in place, but FCPS is not requiring COVID-19 testing or vaccinations for students, though the latter is strongly recommended for those who are eligible.

While FCPS reported relatively low COVID-19 infection rates last month, cases among students, staff, and visitors jumped from 631 in November to 1,312 in December. There have been 25 new cases reported this month, as of Jan. 5, including 13 staff infections and 11 among students.

Fairfax County as a whole is currently averaging more than 2,000 new cases a day.

Earlier this week, the fast-spreading omicron variant and still-limited availability of testing had some parents and teachers urging FCPS to postpone reopening and provide an option for students to learn virtually.

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(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) Up to 5 more inches of snow could come to Fairfax County and nearby areas.

The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Weather Advisory, warning that an additional 2 to 4 inches of snow is forecast to come between 9 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) and 5 a.m. Friday (Jan. 7). It said drivers should expect slippery road conditions.

A winter weather advisory means that hazardous weather is “occurring, imminent or likely.”

The chaotic weather comes after over more than a half foot of snow fell across the county on Monday (Jan. 3), causing crashes and shutting down services, roads and power.

Per the alert:

…WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY IN EFFECT FROM 9 PM THURSDAY TO 5 AM
EST FRIDAY…

* WHAT…Snow. Total snow accumulations 2 to 4 inches. Isolated high amounts of around 5 inches are possible.

* WHERE…The District of Columbia, portions of northern and central Maryland, and northern Virginia.

* WHEN…From 9 PM Thursday to 5 AM EST Friday.

* IMPACTS…Plan on slippery road conditions. The hazardous conditions could impact the Friday morning commute.

* ADDITIONAL DETAILS…The heaviest snow is expected between 10 PM and 2 AM when snowfall rates of 1 inch per hour are possible.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

Slow down and use caution while traveling.

When venturing outside, watch your first few steps taken on steps, sidewalks, and driveways, which could be icy and slippery, increasing your risk of a fall and injury.

Fairfax County Public Schools announced just after 5 p.m. that classes will be canceled again. Students were scheduled to return from winter break on Monday, but it has now been extended four extra days.

“Across Fairfax County, we continue to receive reports of roadways, sidewalks and pathways that remain unsafe for our students, and so we are closing schools out of an abundance of caution, and the concern for safety of our students,” FCPS said on social media.

Unlike with previous cancellations, the school system says its COVID-19 testing sites will all be open for students and staff experiencing symptoms. Plans to resume meal kit distributions are also move forward.

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Fairfax County Public Schools won’t hold classes for a third consecutive day this week, citing inclement weather in an announcement released just before 5 p.m.

The region could see freezing rain between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday), according to the National Weather Service, following Monday’s snowstorm that pummeled the region with over half a foot of snow in areas.

The NWS has issued a “Potential Winter Commuting Hazard” for Fairfax County, warning that there is a 30-50% chance of light freezing rain after 4 a.m. “that could turn into a glaze of ice on area roads.”

“Plan ahead by staying off the roads if possible,” the county said in a blog post. “If you do need to travel, allow for additional time and be extra cautious and alert while driving.”

FCPS said in a Facebook post that meal distribution will return at regular locations on Thursday (Jan. 6), and school offices will open later in the day tomorrow (Wednesday).

The school system tentatively expects to open its COVID-19 testing sites to staff and students who are experiencing symptoms, though a final decision won’t be made until tomorrow morning. Pre-registration is required, and only PCR tests will be available.

Testing is not required for students to be able to return to schools, whenever they reopen.

FCPS’ announcement comes after Monday’s snowstorm caused tens of thousands of Fairfax County homes to lose power and hundreds of crashes. As of this evening (Tuesday), Dominion’s power outage map showed over 7,000 customers in the county with electric issues.

The storm disrupted travel, but Fairfax Connector buses were slated to resume tomorrow (Wednesday). County officials asked commuters to use its BusTracker system in case any detours were still in effect.

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Fairfax County students have already gotten a couple extra days of winter break, thanks to yesterday’s snowstorm, but some community members are calling on Fairfax County Public Schools to extend its closure further, citing concerns about rising COVID-19 cases.

A Change.org petition started over the weekend urges FCPS to utilize some of its built-in snow days to either delay an in-person return in the hopes of mitigating a post-holiday surge or establish an online option for students who would prefer to remain at home.

As of 9 p.m. today (Monday), the petition was nearing 5,000 signatures. Supporters cited fear of the omicron variant’s transmissibility and the challenges with getting tested among their reasons.

FCPS’s designated testing sites have been closed to students the past two days, though the system tentatively expects to open them for staff today (Tuesday). Testing is only required for employees who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, a union that represents faculty and non-administrative staff, also argued yesterday that FCPS should extend winter break another week, stating that staff absences and a rush to roll out Virginia’s planned test-to-stay pilot program would create “stress, chaos and inequity.”

“Our biggest concern has always been the health and safety of our students and teachers, we know that there are ways to better communicate and ensure that safety is prioritized,” the FCFT said in a series of tweets.

As acknowledged by the petition writer, FCPS is required by Virginia law to provide in-person instruction, but it could provide a virtual option or go fully remote if it’s deemed necessary to address high COVID-19 transmission levels in a school.

So far, FCPS has maintained that in-person learning is best for students, though a message sent to families on Sunday (Jan. 2) noted that “it is possible that short-term closures of classrooms will be necessary.”

The Fairfax County Parents Association, an organization that grew out of the Open FCPS movement in the summer of 2020, released a statement yesterday urging the school system to keep its commitment to providing in-person learning.

“We cannot let this hysteria lead us to more disruptions, where students in Fairfax County are on their third school year of educational disruption,” the group said. “Exacerbating that disruption only adds to the damage already done to students.”

FCPS reported 759 COVID-19 cases among students, staff, and visitors for the month of December — fewer than the 850 cases seen in September — but with schools closed for winter break, its data hasn’t been updated since Dec. 17.

How do you think FCPS should handle the current COVID-19 surge? Should students have the option to learn remotely, or should they all return in person? Would your comfort level change if testing was required?

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A snowplow on Legato Road at the intersection of West Ox Road near the Fair Oaks Mall (Photo by Benita Mwali)

(Updated at 2:35 p.m.) Local students will get another day of winter break, thanks to the snow that has inundated Fairfax County and the rest of the D.C. region.

Fairfax County Public Schools announced at 1:17 p.m. that classes have been canceled tomorrow (Tuesday), delaying the return of students for a second consecutive day. There will be no virtual or in-person learning, and all activities on school grounds have been canceled.

In the meantime, the snow has wreaked havoc on people’s travel plans and the county’s power grid.

Drivers faced delays, both by choice and by nature, where even some pickup trucks and emergency vehicles struggled as a snowstorm forced widespread shutdowns from schools to offices and roadways.

At least nine roads in the county were closed due to snow and ice or downed trees and wires, as of 1:50 p.m., according to the Fairfax County Police Department. Major roads affected include Richmond Highway near Huntley Meadows Park and Prosperity Avenue in Mantua.

As of 12:30 p.m., the Virginia State Police had responded to 559 traffic crashes and 522 disabled vehicles across the state since midnight.

Fairfax Connector bus service has been suspended since 11:45 a.m. with no updates on when it might resume.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department reported that firefighters and paramedics have spent all morning responding to reports of downed wires and trees, which have created potentially dangerous conditions while taking out power for around 40,000 Dominion Energy customers.

Downed power lines and trees can be reported to 9-1-1, Dominion Energy and NOVEC, or the Virginia Department of Transportation, depending on the severity of the situation and where the incident occurs.

The snow storm, transforming much of the region even before morning commutes, caught some people off guard after temperatures reached the low 60s yesterday (Sunday).

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2022 written in fireworks (via Moritz Knöringer/Unsplash)

With New Year’s Day arriving this Saturday, many Fairfax County government facilities and services will be taking tomorrow (Friday) off.

Here is a breakdown of the county’s schedule for the New Year’s holiday:

County Government Offices

  • Most offices will be closed throughout the day on New Year’s Eve.

Fairfax County Public Schools

  • Schools remain closed for the winter break. Classes are scheduled to resume on Monday (Jan. 3).
  • The Gatehouse Administrative Center is hosting a drive-through diagnostic testing site from noon to 4 p.m. today (Thursday) and tomorrow. Students should be registered online in advance.

Fairfax County Public Library

  • All branches will be closed on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Courts

County Parks and Recreation Centers

Community and Senior Centers

  • All Neighborhood and Community Services facilities will be closed from Friday through Sunday (Jan. 2).
  • The Cathy Hudgins Community Center at Southgate has modified hours today, closing at 5 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.
  • The Pimmit Hills Senior Center is already closed until Jan. 3, and as of Tuesday (Dec. 28), the South County senior and teen centers have been closed until further notice “due to COVID-19 conditions,” according to the website.
  • The McLean and Reston community centers are both closed for New Year’s Eve and Day.

Trash and Recycling

Transportation

  • Fairfax Connector will follow a Saturday service schedule tomorrow and Saturday. See the website for details about what routes will be available.
  • FASTRAN shuttles will not operate on New Year’s Eve or Day.
  • For New Year’s Eve, Metrorail will start service two hours later than a standard weekday, operating from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. On New Year’s Day, trains will run from 7 a.m. to midnight.
  • Metrobus will use a Sunday schedule for New Year’s Eve before following its typical Saturday schedule on New Year’s Day.

Photo via Moritz Knöringer/Unsplash

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Fairfax High School students play video games in a classroom (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is preparing to level up its esports offerings, expanding an activity that started last year with a handful of rogue student clubs into a full-blown program.

The esports club at Fairfax High School started as a general-interest group while students were learning virtually in 2020. It was run from students’ homes and through an online messaging and voice website, Discord.

Students have still kept their academic priorities, but with in-person learning expanding to five days a week this fall, in-person events became more prevalent: a tournament organized last week involving Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers drew dozens of students.

“It’s the largest club in our school,” said Fairfax High School English teacher David Greene, the club’s advisor, noting that the group has over 200 active members. “A lot of the students who came into the room were not even part of the room yet and were asking how to sign up.”

FCPS plans to make esports available this spring for all 25 high schools and has spent the past few months recruiting coaches.

The expansion will require some adjustments for students in the existing clubs, which include one at Centreville High School.

Where Fairfax High School offered a variety of video games for students to play, FCPS has said its esports program will be limited to the soccer-like car-driving online game Rocket League. The Virginia High School League, which is exploring whether to make esports an officially sanctioned activity, has three titles for its pilot year that started this fall.

Greene says he has advocated for FCPS to consider incorporating two games that his students have been playing, either through the club or on their own: Super Smash Brothers and the multiplayer online battle arena fantasy game League of Legends.

FCPS also intends to have students participate at school facilities rather than remotely, and the introduction of a countywide program will make esports more like other extracurricular activities with coaches, teams, and formal competitions.

Greene says Fairfax High’s esports club gave students a social outlet during the pandemic, as participants talked incessantly on Discord. The games remind him of people watching sports on TV, where people understand the rules and know who they’re rooting for.

“Most students are going to be going home and playing these games anyway,” Greene said. “It’s something that they’re passionate about.”

Though research suggests gaming can improve mental health, extensive screen time remains a concern for many parents and doctors. In China, youth are now restricted to three hours of gaming per week.

Greene says overall screen usage can be a health concern, especially after online schooling launched screen time to new levels, but parents shouldn’t dismiss the intellectual and developmental benefits that activities like video games can provide.

“When I was growing up, parents very much thought of video games as a negative, a dead-end thing, something that you didn’t develop skills by playing,” he said. “And I think that parents should realize that you’re actually developing critical thinking skills when you’re playing these games. I have not seen a student who’s playing these games who doesn’t eventually develop skills to understand, to communicate, [and improve] their fine motor skills.”

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Closed sign (via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

As the holidays approach, here are a number of closures to keep in mind in the area.

Fairfax County Government offices officially close at noon tomorrow through Friday. Offices will also be closed on Friday, Dec. 31 for the New Year’s holiday. But some facilities are open and schedules may differ.

All library branches will be open from 10 a.m. to noon on Christmas Eve, but will remain closed on Friday, Saturday, Dec. 31, and New Year’s Day.  Fairfax County Public Schools are closed through Jan. 3. The school system is encouraging the school community to reach out to address mental health concerns.

The Fairfax Connector will operate on Saturday service schedules tomorrow and Friday.

The county’s Circuit Court will be closed on Thursday and Friday, along with Dec. 30 and 31.

Residents should contact their trash and recycling collection for service changes due to the holidays.

All recreation centers operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority are open tomorrow from 5 a.m. to noon, but closed on Christmas Day. The George Washington Recreation Center, however, will be closed both days.

All county parks and recreation facilities will be closed on Christmas.

Vaccination clinics at the Fairfax County and South County Government Centers will remain closed from tomorrow through Dec. 26, as will the county’s COVID-19 call center.

The Tysons Community Vaccination Center will be closed from tomorrow through Dec. 27 and from Dec. 31 through Jan 2. Between the 28th and 29th, the center will be open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Dec. 30.

Public health officials are also encouraging residents to maintain social distancing measures in order to minimize hospitalizations during the winter surge of cases.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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