FCPS to join COVID-19 testing pilot, weighs fall virtual learning options

Visitors at the Plum Center for Lifelong Learning and Fairfax County Adult High School must scan a QR code to take a survey for contact tracing purposes upon entering the building (Staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

More than 20 schools have expressed interest in learning more about a statewide pilot to conduct on-site COVID-19 screening and testing for students and staff, Fairfax County Public Schools officials reported yesterday (Tuesday).

FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd told the school board during a work session that administrators will meet with staff at 21 schools on Thursday (April 22) to share more details about the Virginia Department of Health programs and determine which schools will ultimately participate.

In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance for kindergarten through 12th grade schools, VDH is working with the Virginia Department of Education to launch two pilot programs this month: one will provide schools with free antigen testing supplies that can return results within 15 minutes, and the other will support regular screenings to identify potential infections.

According to VDH, the diagnostic testing pilot is primarily intended to diagnose COVID-19 in teachers, staff, and students who are participating in-person instruction or are close contacts with someone who has been diagnosed and begin exhibiting symptoms.

The screening testing pilot, on the other hand, involves regularly screening a broad group of individuals to detect an infection before it spreads or become symptomatic. FCPS says it would conduct this pilot just with students, since staff have been able to get vaccinated.

Schools have the option to participate in one of the pilot programs, both of them, or neither. The pilots will launch this month and conclude on June 30.

“Our purpose for implementing these pilots this year is to gain information about what would be needed to stand it up next year, so this is really to get us prepared,” Boyd said.

In addition to participating in the pilot programs, FCPS is “actively pursuing” partners in the hopes of setting up targeted COVID-19 vaccine clinics for students that would be similar to the ones arranged with Inova for teachers and staff.

Since Fairfax County entered Phase 2 on Sunday (April 18), students 16 and older can now register for the vaccine, and FCPS is encouraging everyone who is eligible to find an appointment, according to a presentation that Superintendent Scott Brabrand delivered to the school board.

“We know that’s going to be critically important to returning to five days of instruction,” Boyd said of students getting vaccinated.

According to a report prepared for the school board, there were 470 reported COVID-19 cases among FCPS students and staff currently participating in in-person learning between Jan. 26 and April 13, but only 29 of those cases involved transmission within schools.

Four of the five outbreaks in that time period stemmed from athletic activities. Since school sports restarted in December, FCPS has documented 270 COVID-19 cases, including 61 cases likely spread through schools, and 16 outbreaks across 12 schools, all in basketball, wrestling, and football programs.

To date, there have been 1,397 reported cases among FCPS staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8.

With under two months left in the current school year, FCPS officials are turning their attention to preparing for summer programs and the fall, when the school system plans to provide in-person classes five days a week in accordance with a new state law that will take effect on July 1.

More than 35,000 students are expected to participate in FCPS’s summer programs — 10 times the summer school enrollment in a typical year. Officials estimate that more than 4,000 teachers will be needed over the summer, something that Brabrand acknowledged will factor into how many students are able to participate.

“We’re not going to reach out to those parents when we don’t have the staffing at the school, so we’re going to do the staffing first,” the superintendent said.

The school board spent much of yesterday’s work session discussing options for virtual learning in the fall, which will be utilized in limited circumstances for students who “have a documented medical need” to remain virtual, according to Brabrand.

While Brabrand recommended continuing to use a concurrent instructional model in those cases, he also presented the Virginia Department of Education’s Virtual Virginia platform as an alternative in response to opposition to concurrent learning from several school board members, who cited complaints about the extra workload faced by teachers.

“Concurrent was really a patch for an extreme situation, which may be a good thing to use in case of quarantine or something like that, a limited use, but I’d prefer to see students in an in-person or a virtual classroom,” Dranesville District Representative Elaine Tholen said.

Even if FCPS opts to use Virtual Virginia, some concurrent learning or supplemental services will still need to be provided in the fall, because it doesn’t include advanced academics, English as a Second Language, and other programs.

Brabrand noted that students who take courses through Virtual Virginia would have to commit to that for the full year, and they would not be getting instruction from FCPS teachers. The program also costs $3,850 per student on average.

The board failed to come to a consensus on which path to take, but Brabrand urged them to make a decision soon so that FCPS can tell families and staff what to expect. The school system plans to open an initial application for students to request full-time virtual learning in the fall from May 3 to 28.

“Every one of these models has its tradeoffs,” Brabrand said. “It’s just weighing, in the end, where you want to land on what those tradeoffs are.”

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