Tysons, VA

Fairfax County Public Schools could expand in-person learning to more students starting next week based on current health data, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand says in a presentation that he will deliver to the county school board at its work session tonight (Thursday).

Virginia Department of Health data indicates that Northern Virginia has started seeing a slight uptick in reported COVID-19 cases in October, with 314 cases reported on Oct. 15 for a seven-day moving average of 248 cases. However, the burden and extent of community transmission in the region is still considered low as of the week that ended on Oct. 10.

Coupled with efforts to implement mitigation strategies recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prepare staff for instructional and operational changes, Fairfax County’s current health metrics support FCPS continuing to phase in in-person learning, Brabrand’s presentation says.

After introducing in-person instruction for select specialized career preparation classes on Oct. 5, FCPS is planning to expand in-person learning to some of its early childhood special education services, including its preschool autism class, on Oct. 19.

Under Brabrand’s tentative timeline, FCPS will continue phasing cohorts of students – mostly younger students and students with special education needs – into in-person classes throughout the rest of the year before introducing hybrid learning for all students in early 2021.

For hybrid learning, students can choose to remain completely online or to receive two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction. This phase will start on Jan. 4 for grades three to six and on Feb. 1 for grades seven through 12.

“We believe in-person instruction is best to meet our students’ academic, social, and emotional needs,” Brabrand’s presentation says. “We want to phase students back to in-person instruction as safely, efficiently, and as early as possible. All phase-in decisions will be made with student and staff safety as the highest priority.”

FCPS is also proposing a pilot to test a concurrent instructional model where teachers would work simultaneously with students in the classroom and online. The pilot would start next week with first-grade students at Kings Park Elementary School in Springfield and English, math, and science classes at West Springfield High School.

The number of pilot sites will scale up later in October, according to Brabrand’s presentation.

FCPS says a concurrent instructional model would provide scheduling flexibility, save teachers from having to plan separate activities for in-person and virtual students, and allow students to continue receiving instruction whether they are online or physically in their school building.

Possible challenges include the additional burden on teachers as they transition to a concurrent model, the difficulty of managing a classroom with both in-person and online students, and the potential for video and audio issues to affect students’ learning experience.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing FCPS as it attempts to resume in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March is the availability of teachers and support staff, who have expressed concerns about returning to the classroom due to the possible health risks.

An FCPS survey of teachers and instructional support staff found that 84 percent of respondents have a desire to return to support in-person instruction, but the school system only heard back from 56 percent of the individuals that were surveyed. People who did not respond are assigned to in-person instruction by default.

Of the respondents who suggested they would not return for in-person instruction, 259 people said they would request Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations for health concerns. 47 people cited childcare responsibilities, while 41 people would take a leave of absence and 11 people said they would resign or retire.

After conducting its own survey, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers reported on Oct. 6 that almost 53 percent of its members would consider taking a leave of absence or resigning if asked to return to work in person, with only 9.7 percent of respondents saying they feel safe returning.

The federation, which serves as a labor union for FCPS educators and staff, has criticized the county’s return-to-school plan as lacking in transparency and detail.

While some of the metrics sought by the federation are in Brabrand’s presentation for tonight, including the availability of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, FCFT says it has still not gotten a commitment from FCPS to provide clear metrics for determining school closures, train all staff on protocols before everyone returns to school buildings, maintain a daily public record of cleanings, or explain how its new mask regulation will be enforced, among other demands.

“We are pleased to see that FCPS is providing some additional details to the School Board tonight,” FCFT organizer Tiffany Finck-Haynes said in a statement. “We do continue to have unanswered questions regarding the plan, have significant concerns with the concurrent teaching model proposed, and continue to urge FCPS to adopt our 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening.”

The Fairfax County School Board’s work session is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. The board will not formally vote on Brabrand’s proposed return-to-school plan, but FCPS staff recommends that the board give a consensus to support the plan.

Photo courtesy FCFT

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