FCPS moves forward with $189M COVID-19 grant, as special education concerns persist

The Fairfax County School Board approved a framework yesterday (Thursday) to seek federal COVID-19 money, with the stipulation that it gets increased oversight and input on how the money will be spent.

The roughly $189 million plan would start with the upcoming school year and extend to June 2024. It is intended to help Fairfax County Public Schools respond to issues stemming from the pandemic.

“While we did have a public hearing about where people would like us to target our monies, we have not had the opportunity to get the greater details from the superintendent and his team,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said.

The school board thanked district administrators for developing the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) framework after learning about the incoming funds in May, but several board officials questioned whether the proposal was sufficiently detailed and provided enough accountability.

“The ESSER funds are unlike other funding by the federal government in that it has a requirement to have extensive community input and outreach,” Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said.

The ESSER III money will support school operations, cover increased workloads for Individualized Education Program (IEP) staff, aid academic interventions, address students’ social and emotional needs, help with translation services for students, and more.

The largest costs, as identified by district staff so far, would involve:

  • $54.9 million for academic intervention
  • $46.2 million for special education teacher contracts
  • $23.3 million for social and emotional learning needs
  • Nearly $20.2 million for summer 2022 learning
  • Nearly $14 million for afterschool programming and transportation

According to an FCPS presentation about the program, the ESSER money should address the impacts of the pandemic especially for students who have been disproportionately affected, and at least 20% must be used to address learning loss, among other rules.

The money will come through the Virginia Department of Education from the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law in March.

Corbett-Sanders said FCPS faces an Aug. 1 deadline for submitting a general framework to the state before giving a more specific plan for how it will spend the funds by Sept. 1.

“Rather than just greenlighting, ‘They’re giving us $188.6 million, we’re going to put it in a line item list,’ we felt that it was important to have a little bit more comprehensive planning around the ESSER funds grant,” Corbett-Sanders said.

With the board’s initial approval, Superintendent Scott Brabrand will present an official ESSER III plan prior to the board’s Aug. 26 business meeting. He will present more detailed information, including targeted goals, operational timelines, and accountability metrics in a September work session.

The board’s motion also stipulated that state-filed amendments to the plan that reach $100,000 or more must be authorized by the board.

Of particular concern for FCPS right now is the proposed $46 million in special education costs, which would pay existing staff for an extra 30 minutes per day, amounting to a 7% salary increase, according to the district.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand said during a work session on Tuesday (July 13) that the additional time stems from increased paperwork for Individualized Education Program plans due to the pandemic.

The promise of additional funding comes amid a reported shortage of special education teachers that left FCPS scrambling last month to preserve a summer learning program for students with disabilities.

Parent Kirstin Apker said at yesterday’s board meeting that FCPS gave families less than five days’ notice that the Extended School Year program would be delayed. Conflicting communication from the district about transportation led Apker to take her son to the school, only to find out he would have to wait for a newly created second session that starts later this month.

“I understand that FCPS only has so much control over teacher burnout and staffing shortages, but that does not excuse the lack of transparency and untimely communication,” she told the school board.

Apker noted that although her family has appreciated the staff and quality of special education services as well as previous communications from FCPS, her child was given 10-minute online sessions each day with his special education teacher during the pandemic.

School officials suggested this month that staffing issues were resolved with Extended School Year, but Fairfax County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association Vice President Amanda Campbell said families and staff remain apprehensive about staffing levels for this fall.

She told the school board that SEPTA has also heard from staff and families who say students’ IEP plans are not being implemented.

“We renew our request for a town hall with FCPS leadership to address ESY questions and concerns for special education families and staff,” Campbell said. “The issues facing ESY this year may likely continue in future summers as the impact from the pandemic continues to become clearer.”

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