Fairfax County Public Schools administrators reaffirmed their commitment to bringing more students back for in-person learning during a Fairfax County School Board work session last night (Thursday), despite increasing levels of COVID-19 transmission in Northern Virginia.
After introducing more than 8,000 students to hybrid learning – which consists of two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction – over the past month, FCPS is preparing to welcome an additional 6,800 students back into classrooms on Nov. 17, Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board.
Under a newly revised timeline, another cohort of approximately 13,500 students, including first and second-graders as well as students with disabilities, will start hybrid learning on Dec. 8, a week later than previously proposed.
Students in grades three to six will now be phased in on Jan. 12 instead of Jan. 4. Middle and high school students are still scheduled to return on Jan. 26.
“As we make preparations for additional students and staff to return, we are very mindful of the national, state, and local COVID trends,” Brabrand said. “COVID remains a fluid situation, and I want to emphasize these are my recommendations as of today, this evening.”
For now, FCPS will forge ahead with its Return to School plan even as COVID-19 cases rise in Fairfax County at a rate not seen since early June and the public school system reports its first outbreaks of the pandemic.
According to FCPS, Justice High School in Falls Church and Woodson High School in Fairfax had outbreaks on Nov. 10 that involved staff members, but no students. An outbreak is defined as more than two cases of COVID-19 that are epidemiologically linked.
FCPS sent out letters reporting the outbreaks to the affected school communities and is working with the Fairfax County Health Department to support its contact tracing investigations.
“Those outbreaks are concerning to us, and we take that seriously,” FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd said. “We’re following up on what may have contributed to the transmission in our schools.”
As of this morning, FCPS has recorded 192 COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, including 28 cases involving students, though the vast majority of infected individuals have been employees. 40 cases have been reported just this week starting on Nov. 8.
The unions that represent FCPS educators have argued that the school system should halt its plans for bringing in more students.
“We do not believe we should continue to send our most vulnerable students into the buildings,” the Fairfax Education Association board of directors said in a statement. “…It is unacceptable for FCPS to disregard the advice of scientists and medical professionals during a global pandemic, thereby placing our students, staff, and families at risk.”
FCPS is using metrics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guide its reopening strategy. The established thresholds that Fairfax County must meet for the next cohort of students to begin in-person instruction are 200 or fewer cases per 100,000 people and less than 8% test positivity for seven consecutive calendar days.
As of Nov. 13, Fairfax County had 190.8 new cases per 100,000 people within the past 14 days and a 6.4% positivity rate for COVID-19 tests, putting it just barely within those thresholds, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
While resuming in-person instruction raises public health risks, FCPS is also grappling with the consequences of limiting students to virtual learning.
Brabrand confirmed on Thursday that more students than usual received D and F grades in the 2020-2021 academic year’s first quarter, which ended on Nov. 2. A formal analysis of the impact of distance learning on students’ grades is still being conducted.
“I do think that in-person is much easier for us to assess student progress and engagement and be able to evaluate student progress,” Bush Hill Elementary School Principal Mary Duffy told the school board.
Whether hybrid learning will impart the same academic benefits as full-time in-person learning remains to be seen, however, as families and some employees remain skeptical of the concurrent learning model that FCPS has been piloting since October.
A Fairfax County Federation of Teachers survey of 475 FCPS employees found that 92.4% of the respondents participating in the pilot program feel virtual and in-person students are not receiving an equitable education, and 76.9% say they can provide higher quality instruction through full distance learning.
FCPS Director of News and Information Lucy Caldwell says the school system is doing its best to balance the needs of students and instructional staff, stating that many teachers have said they want to return to the classroom.
“Our return-to-school plan, in which gradually certain cohorts of students and their teachers return to in-person instruction, prioritizes the safety of students and staff,” Caldwell said. “We have protocols in place, robust health and safety metrics, a transparent dashboard, and a phased-in approach that will allow us to closely monitor conditions and to make any necessary adjustments.”