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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via Geoff Livingston/Flickr

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Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams speaks in support of collective bargaining for general county government workers in October (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County Public Schools is moving to give its workers collective bargaining powers.

An FCPS webpage launched Friday (Dec. 17) explains that the school system is developing an ordinance establishing the scope and rules of collective bargaining, which will enable labor unions to negotiate pay, benefits, and working conditions for their members.

Work on the proposed draft ordinance is expected to continue until the end of January. The text could be released for public comment in February or March, Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams told FFXnow.

A union representing FCPS teachers and support staff, including bus drivers, custodians, nurses, and cafeteria workers, the FEA says it is confident that the school board will adopt an ordinance allowing collective bargaining.

“We have waited for 44 years, and the time is now to pass a strong ordinance,” Adams said in a statement. “Our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions and we want to remain the school district that people love to work and learn in.”

Local government workers in Virginia had been prohibited from collective bargaining since 1977 until the General Assembly passed legislation allowing localities to authorize the practice during its spring 2020 session.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance for general county government employees on Oct. 19, but FCPS needs to create a separate policy for its employees. The school system has 24,839 full-time workers, according to its website.

The state law still prohibits government workers from striking, and even if FCPS adopts a collective bargaining ordinance, union membership won’t be required for employees, since Virginia remains a right-to-work state.

FCPS says it’s unclear how the introduction of collective bargaining will affect current employees and their pay, but the process for negotiating agreements in the future will be aligned with the school system’s annual budget timeline.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, a union open to all FCPS teachers and other non-administrative, non-supervisory employees, says it has been working with FCPS to develop a resolution “that is inclusive and flexible for all members” since the 2020 Virginia law took effect on May 1.

“Throughout our sessions our bargaining team has fought for a broad and open bargaining scope that helps to establish school staff’s right to negotiate hours and scheduling, compensation, health, retirement, all working conditions and other benefits,” FCFT President Tina Williams said by email. “As we bargain to build power in our county, we will continue to fight to guarantee our members’ voices are included throughout  the entirety of the process.”

The FEA and FCFT are among several school employee organizations in a collective bargaining work group created by FCPS earlier this year. The group convened for the first time on Sept. 30 and is expected to continue meeting every few weeks through January.

“FEA has been at each session, ready to advocate for our member’s needs and build partnerships that achieve our interests,” Adams said. “We look forward to the final draft and a strong vote from our school board.”

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Laura Jane Cohen, Springfield District representative for Fairfax County Public Schools (via FCPS)

A coalition that tried to recall school board member Elaine Tholen has filed another recall petition, this time for school board member Laura Jane Cohen.

Open FCPS Coalition says it’s seeking to remove the Springfield District representative over Fairfax County Public Schools’ pandemic response. Dee O’Neal Jackson, the group’s founder, said in a statement that the school board has failed students during the pandemic, especially those with learning disabilities.

“We hope the Court recognizes the concerns of these 8,000 residents and requires Ms. Cohen to explain why the concerns of these parents are invalid,” the group said in a statement, stating that it filed the 8,000-plus signatures collected for the petition on Friday (Dec. 10) at the Fairfax County Courthouse.

Open FCPS Coalition has gathered signatures against multiple school board members and previously noted concerns with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Open FCPS Coalition formed in fall 2020 to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and campaigned to recall Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, and Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish.

Cohen noted Tholen’s case was summarily dismissed after a special prosecutor said he had investigated the allegations in the petition and found that none of them could be substantiated.

“Allowing public officials to be recalled over policy disagreements unnecessarily politicizes their work,” Cohen said in a statement. “Virginia law is clear: differences of opinion over matters of policy are simply not grounds for removal from office.”

While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, it’s received funding contributions from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.

Open FCPS Coalition previously said only one school board member, Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority.

“The Board has worked hard to ensure the safety and health of our 180,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers and staff during the pandemic,” Cohen said in a statement. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to successfully return and keep students in our buildings this year and provide a much more normal school experience in spite of the pandemic related challenges all systems are facing.”

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LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual/agender, and other gender and sexual minority identities (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

Students and staff in the LGBTQIA+ community expressed relief yesterday (Tuesday) after Fairfax County Public Schools announced that it will return a pair of challenged, queer-centered books to library shelves.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age story about a Mexican American man that deals with race, class, and sexual identity — were pulled from circulation in late September after parents complained that they contained graphic sexual content unsuitable for children.

Two committees convened to review the books determined the complaints were without merit and that the books have literary merit in line with FCPS’ goal of supporting a diverse student body, including through its library materials, the school system said.

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, praised the decision as an affirmation of its argument that the books are “valuable sources of support” for vulnerable students, not pornography or pedophelia as alleged by the complaints.

“I am relieved that our libraries will continue to have books that depict people like me,” a Westfield High School student said in a news release. “It is isolating when LGBTQIA+ students are singled out and already limited Queer representation is taken away.”

FCPS Pride, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group for employees, said its members were pleased that “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” will be returned to circulation.

Kobabe’s memoir will be reinstated at the 12 high schools that currently own it, and Evison’s novel will be available at seven high schools, according to FCPS.

“Having read the the books and knowing that FCPS has a commitment to including and welcoming all students, we had faith that the process would be followed and literature that allows LGBTQIA+ students to see themselves, and which allows their peers to see that they exist, would be returned to circulation,” FCPS Pride said in a statement.

With book challenges cropping up across the country in recent months, many of them targeting books about gender and sexual identity or race, FCPS Pride co-president Robert Rigby Jr. tied the complaints against “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” to a larger political backlash to LGBTQIA+ inclusion, pointing to a blog post accusing teachers of using Gay-Straight Alliances to “recruit” children that was shared by the Fairfax County Republican Committee as an example.

FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Department Noel Klimenko confirmed to FFXnow that formal complaints were filed against the two books, but the issue gained attention when conservative-leaning media outlets and advocates shared mother Stacy Langton’s remarks from a contentious school board meeting on Sept. 23.

“LGBTQ students and their peaceful existence in classes and schools have become ‘collateral damage,’ with uncaring people exploiting their existence for other purposes,” Rigby said.

Langton wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Examiner that her complaint stemmed from concern about pornographic materials in schools, not as an objection to LGBTQ characters, stating that she’s aware of the discrimination that community faces because her mother was lesbian.

Klimenko, who made the final decision to reinstate “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” says book challenges tend to get politicized since they deal with free speech issues and people’s subjective opinions about what constitutes objectionable art.

The publicity around Langton’s complaint and claims that the books depicted pedophelia, which turned out to be unfounded, prompted FCPS to remove the books from circulation — a departure from past practices, as the school system has historically left books on shelves while they’re under review.

“We decided we needed to have an abundance of caution and go ahead and remove those books,” Klimenko said. “But now that this decision has been made, the books will be returned to the libraries that had them prior to the challenge.”

FCPS’ regulation on handling book challenges doesn’t explicitly state whether books should remain available while being reviewed.

Klimenko says staff will consult with school board members and other stakeholders to see if there were any concerns with how the two-month-long process played out, but overall, FCPS upheld its established policies, which had not been tested since the last library material challenge in 2015.

“I think it’s really important that Fairfax County Public Schools has a procedure for both identifying books to put in our libraries and also for challenging them,” she said. “I feel like we’ve taken great care and deliberation with this decision.”

Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky, who represents Sully District, says there have not been any conversations so far about reexamining the challenged materials regulation, which was last updated on Feb. 16.

She expressed support for parents playing “a robust and active role in their children’s education.”

Langton told the Washington Examiner earlier this month that she was barred from the Fairfax High School library after visiting with her son to check out a book.

FCPS doesn’t accommodate unscheduled visits to school libraries or other instructional spaces during class hours, but it allows pre-arranged visits before and after the school day. Its library catalogs can also be viewed online.

“I encourage parents to be involved in conversations with their students about all aspects of their school experience, including their literary choices,” Pekarsky said in a statement. “I continue to trust the professionalism of our school librarians and appreciate the time and care they devote to procuring collections that will serve a diverse student body.”

Photo via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

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Stacy Langton (Photo via FCPS/YouTube)
Mother protests sexual content of book at Fairfax County School Board meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

Fairfax County Public Schools has pulled two books from its shelves after a local mom complained to the school board that the titles contain graphic sexual content and pedophelia.

A spokesperson for FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe have been temporarily pulled from shelves.

Two committees under the supervision of the school system’s library service coordinator will assess the suitability of both texts for high school libraries. The committee will include representation from staff, students, and parents, according to the spokesperson.

The recommendation of the committees will be put forward to the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services who will make a final decision as to whether FCPS continues to provide access to these books in our high school libraries,” the spokesperson said.

Stacy Langton, a Fairfax County mother, held up content from the books at a heated Sept. 23 school board meeting. The material — which was blurred in a recording of the meeting — included details of a man having sex with a boy, oral sex, masturbation, and nudity.

“Pornography is offensive to all people,” Langston said. The recording also muted Langton’s descriptions of the books’ content, which she said includes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy recounts sucking an adult man’s penis.

A Patch review of the two books disputed that characterization, reporting that “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age novel about a Mexican landscaper — contains no scenes of adults having sex with minors and that the illustration that drew objections in “Gender Queer,” an autobiography, appears in the context of the author’s teenage fantasy.

Another county resident and former FCPS teacher — Adrienne Henzel — said she was appalled by what she described as “homo-erotic material” supported by county taxpayer dollars.

FCPS Pride, an employees’ group that represents the LGBTQIA+ community and formed in 2015, said the inclusion of books that represent “oft-excluded communities such as LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized groups” help feel students more welcome and safer. LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning, and asexual.

“These books are ‘mirrors and windows’ as  they ‘tell a story’ to give a window on a community that a reader may not belong to, and they share a narrative with which a given student may identify,” said Robert Rigby, co-president of FCPS Pride and an FCPS high school teacher.

Rigby told FFXnow that FCPS Pride is thankful for librarians who have established catalogs and collections that include all communities — especially marginalized ones.

Langton’s comments drew several objections from Springfield District board member Laura Jane Cohen, who noted that there were children in the room and that the books are available only in high schools.

She was cut off when she went over the three-minute time limit for public comments and refused to leave the podium for the next speaker, prompting the school board to take a five-minute recess “to clear the room.”

The incident was picked up by several conservative-leaning national news outlets and flagged by Asra Nomani, vice president of strategy and investigations for Parents Defending Education, a recently formed nonprofit organization that fights what it calls “indoctrination” in education. Read More

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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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