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FCPS Suggests Extending School Year Due to Virtual Learning Struggles

Fairfax County Public Schools may have to consider extending the school year into the summer of 2021 to help students who have fallen behind while trying to learn virtually this year.

FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Finance Leigh Burden raised the possibility during a joint Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and Fairfax County School Board meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 24) that focused on projections for the county and school system’s Fiscal Year 2022 budgets.

While some have managed to adapt to online education, a report released by FCPS this week confirmed fears that many students have struggled to learn during a year of uncertainty and disruptions caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has largely kept school doors closed since March.

Conducted by the FCPS Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, the study found that failing grades increased by 83% from the first quarter of 2019-20 to the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, making up 11% of all marks given to students since the year started on Sept. 8.

The uptick in “F” grades was especially pronounced for students with disabilities, who saw an 111% increase, and English-language learners, who saw a 106% increase.

“All groups showed increases in the percentage of F marks received during Q1 of the current year as compared to the prior year, indicating that more students were failing courses during the (primarily) virtual instruction period than had occurred when instruction was delivered in-person,” ORSI said in its report.

Members of both the school board and the Board of Supervisors expressed support for the idea of adding a fifth quarter to this school year to make up for lost learning, but given the current surge in COVID-19 cases in Fairfax County, exactly when FCPS will be able to provide in-person instruction to all students again is difficult to predict.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck says he will be advocating for an extended school year for in-person learning.

“I think there’s no other way to make up for what our students have lost over the past year,” Storck said. “…We need that time to help them recover their learning, and the educational needs are unmet, particularly of our neediest students. That student-teacher bond, we need to help reaffirm and build that back.”

Karen Corbett Sanders, who represents the Mount Vernon District on the school board, agreed that this option should be discussed now so the costs can be taken into account as the county prepares its budget for the next fiscal year.

“We cannot continue to surprise our community with new initiatives on how we’re addressing this pandemic. It would be better for us to upfront address this,” Corbett Sanders said.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand is scheduled to release a proposed FY 2022 budget on Jan. 7, though the county and school board will not adopt final budgets until May.

The possibility of a summer school expansion is among several potential expenses not incorporated in the fiscal forecast presented on Tuesday.

Other unfunded expenditures on the FCPS side include $5 million for 50 additional English Learner teachers, $3.5 million to add technology support specialist positions at 51 elementary schools, and $2.8 million to cover the final year of a three-year plan to raise instructional assistant salaries.

Several school board members emphasized that mental health services, employee compensation, improvements in technology access, and supports for students with disabilities and English-language learners should be priorities for funding.

“Supporting our children with learning losses due to COVID-19 and looking at creative ways to measure what those losses are and creative ways to alleviate that is going to take staff time and resources,” Dranesville District School Board Member Elaine Tholen said. “So, we need to pay attention to that.”

Photo via Fairfax County government

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