Tysons, VA

On Tuesday morning (Feb. 23), 12 kindergarteners stepped into their classroom at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church for the first time.

Their teacher, Claire Kelley, and Principal Lauren Badini had distributed individually bagged breakfasts on the distanced desks. The classroom looked like the quintessential kindergarten classroom, decorated with bright colors and posters.

However, some of the posters bore messages instructing students to keep their distance from each other, wash their hands, and wear masks, a reminder that this was anything but a typical school day in a typical school year.

“It’s a pandemic classroom,” Badini said. “[Kelley’s] done an amazing job making it fun and exciting.”

Kelley will welcome another 12 kindergarteners to her classroom today (Wednesday).

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’m super hopeful things are getting better.”

Nearly one year since schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairfax County Public Schools is reopening its doors for families who opt for in-person instruction in stages over the next month.

After delaying plans to resume in-person classes in January, the Fairfax County School Board approved a new Return to School timeline earlier this month that started bringing students back on Feb. 16. Its schedule lines up with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandate that all school divisions provide an option for in-person instruction by Mar. 15.

This week, 7,000 kindergarteners across the division returned, along with preschoolers, Early Head Start students, and other students receiving specialized instruction. Kids who are not receiving special education services are following a hybrid model that provides two days of in-person classes per week, with groups coming in on alternating days.

Graham Road will add 60 first and second graders on Mar. 9 and 80 students in grades 3-6 on Mar. 16. The phasing was designed so kindergarteners would have time to adjust to mitigation behaviors before being overwhelmed by older students, according to Badini.

“We’ve been prepping since July,” Badini said. “We’ve had to rethink every aspect of school. Elementary school turns on collaboration, talking, being close, holding hands.”

Kelley started preparing her students over Zoom by having them greet each other with fist bumps and air hugs. They practiced wearing their masks and watched videos of handwashing. The teacher developed songs and verbal cues, like pantomiming a zombie, to make sure kids stay apart.

“These are the rules they have to follow to stay in school,” she said. “I’m taking a step back to make sure they understand what they need to do to stay safe.”

For Badini, Mar. 12, 2020 was the last day things felt normal. When schools closed, the principal sprang into action to make sure her students — most of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches — have internet access, piloting a program with FCPS and internet provider Cox.

Badini says the school tries to “do everything we can” to make up for the sacrifices parents are making, by providing free meals and snacks because “there has had to be a give and take somewhere.”

While Graham Road has some distinct challenges, all school principals are grappling with engagement, connectivity, and attendance, she said.

“We have wanted this and have been waiting for this for a year,” Badini said. “We know parents are frustrated. We’re working parents, too.”

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The Fairfax County School Board unanimously adopted an advertised Fiscal Year 2022 budget for the county public school system when it met last Thursday (Feb. 18).

The $3.2 billion budget includes a $60.3 million increase in Fairfax County Public Schools’ request for funding from the county board of supervisors to increase employee compensation rates by 3%, a significant change from what FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand proposed in January.

Anticipating a tough financial year due to the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brabrand had originally proposed freezing staff salaries aside from $3 million to complete a three-year push to bring the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants up to 50% of the salary scale for teachers who have bachelor’s degrees.

Improving employee compensation has been a priority of the school board in recent years, as the board seeks to restore over $70 million and nearly 2,700 positions that have been cut since 2008, according to Lee District Representative Tamara Derenak-Kaufax.

“As a board, we must be committed to making certain we are hiring and retaining the best and brightest employees to teach our children, to counsel our children, to transport our children, to feed our children, and to ensure that their social and emotional needs are being met,” Derenak-Kaufax said. “In order to do so, we must be competitive with our surrounding jurisdictions.”

On top of the requested county transfer funds, FCPS projects that it could receive an additional $13.4 million in state revenue to cover the compensation increases based on a proposed budget from the Virginia State Senate that would provide a 3% salary bump for public school educators.

When approving the advertised budget, the school board also amended Brabrand’s proposed budget to include an additional $1.4 million to hire instructional coaches at six Title I elementary schools and create pay parity for elementary school principals and assistant principals.

Overall, the FY 2022 advertised budget seeks to increase FCPS funding by 2.4%, or $75.5 million, compared to the school system’s approved FY 2021 budget.

In addition to employee compensation, the increase provides for expanded preschool special education classes, retirement rate increases and rising health care costs, and support for student needs related to the pandemic, according to FCPS.

The budget also includes $4.9 million and 50 staff positions for English as a Second Language programs at the elementary school level, along with $500,000 and three positions for a collective bargaining team after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 allowing localities to recognize collective bargaining rights for public employees starting on May 1.

Karen Corbett-Sanders, who represents Mount Vernon District on the Fairfax County School Board, noted that the advertised FY 2022 budget does not include money for possible summer school programming, which will instead come from federal COVID-19 relief funds that Congress approved in December.

“We recognize that the past year has been incredibly difficult for our community,” Brabrand said. “This budget is designed to bring hope to students, their families and our staff by providing the resources each of them needs to help recognize and support all their extraordinary contributions during this pandemic.”

While not included in the advertised budget, the school board also directed Brabrand to identify funds to create positions for a neuro-diversity specialist and a trauma-informed social emotional learning specialist, roles that are, respectively, intended to provide support for students with disabilities and address students’ mental health needs.

At-large member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, who was a disability rights advocate before being elected to the school board in 2019, says having a neuro-diversity specialist could be “transformative” in helping eliminate disparities in academic achievement and discipline for students with disabilities.

“A neurodiversity-oriented approach, with its focus on student strengths, positive teacher expectations, and inclusion of the lived norms of students with disabilities within the norms of classrooms, can improve outcomes for students with disabilities and set them up for success after they leave FCPS,” Sizemore Heizer said.

County Executive Bryan Hill is scheduled to present his proposed FY 2022 budget to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors tomorrow (Tuesday). The school board will present its advertised budget to the Board of Supervisors on Apr. 13 and adopt an approved FY 2022 budget on May 20.

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(Updated at 11 a.m.) In the past eight months, the students in Vanessa Edwards’s nursing class have become well-versed in adapting to change.

After starting the school year in a virtual setting in July, they were among the roughly 8,000 students that attended in-person classes in the fall, only to revert to online classes when Fairfax County Public Schools paused plans for in-person instruction after winter break.

So, no one was fazed when a fire alarm blared through the halls of Fairfax County Adult High School in Springfield half an hour into Edwards’s first in-person class of 2021 on Wednesday (Feb. 17).

For faculty and students alike, the short-lived, familiar inconvenience of a fire drill paled in comparison to the relief of getting to interact with people face-to-face instead of through screens.

“Teaching nursing, there are certain skills and things you cannot teach virtual, so it makes it a lot more challenging to try and come up with ways to teach them,” Edwards said. “…We’re very excited to be back now in person, and hopefully, we’ll be able to stay in person through the remainder of the year.”

The School of Practical Nursing is among a handful of specialized career and technical education (CTE) programs that restarted in-person classes this past week, along with many young students with disabilities.

With local and regional COVID-19 transmission rates on the decline, FCPS is attempting to bring students back into buildings in phases, with in-person classes expanding to all grade levels by Mar. 16.

A licensed and registered nurse who worked at local hospitals and doctors’ offices for 21 years before being hired as a teacher by FCPS, Edwards says she feels “well-prepared” to resume in-person classes after seeing consistent compliance with mask requirements and other procedures in the fall.

It helps that her class only has 10 students this year and uses a spacious room that allows for plenty of distance between desks, luxuries that will not be available to all classes.

While the small class size means she hasn’t had to try it herself, Edwards thinks the hybrid, concurrent learning model that FCPS is implementing will help by reducing the number of students in a room at any given time.

“I think it is safe, coming back,” Edwards said. “I think having the less amount of people in one classroom is a good idea, and [it’s important] to just maintain the protocols.”

As of Feb. 18, FCPS has recorded 972 COVID-19 cases among staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8, but there do not appear to be any in Fairfax County Adult High School, which houses the School of Practical Nursing and other CTE programs in the Plum Center for Lifelong Learning. Read More

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Wednesday Morning Notes

Vienna and Dunn Loring Metro Stations Will Get New Escalators — Metro awarded a $179 million, seven-year contract to replace 130 escalators at 32 stations, including two at the Dunn Loring-Merrifield station and three at the Vienna station. Work on the project will start in May and will require the demolition and removal of the existing escalators. [WMATA]

Fairfax County High School Football Season Starts Monday — Fairfax County Public Schools will allow some fans when the football season kicks off on Feb. 22. Players will be required to wear masks, but locker rooms will be off limits, among other COVID-19 safety protocols. [ABC7-WJLA]

Fairfax County Introduces Outdoor Document Drop Boxes — “Fairfax County Department of Family Services now has outdoor drop boxes to turn in documents for Medicaid, SNAP, TANF or other programs anytime, 24/7. Search Fairfax County Goverment, outdoor drop box to see a list of locations.” [@SupvPalchik/Twitter]

Virginia Seeks Public Input on History and Social Studies Education Standards — “Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) staff members are encouraging the community to provide comments to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for its review and revision of the History and Social Science Standards of Learning, scheduled to be completed before November 2022.” [FCPS]

Tysons Wellness Center Was Ahead of the Teletherapy Curve — “[Derek] Russell, a licensed professional counselor and neurotherapist, opened Mindstate as a mental health and cognitive peak performance center at 1980 Gallows Road in Tysons. In just over a year, Mindstate has grown from a one-man business with neurotherapy and counseling services, to a center also staffed with another therapist and health coaches.” [McLean Patch]

Northern Virginia Home Sales Were Up in January — Sales were up 29% compared to January 2020, with competition particularly intense for single-family houses. The Northern Virginia Association of Realtors says there is more of a supply for condos, especially high-rise and luxury units in places like Tysons, possibly due to a wariness of shared amenities and close contact with neighbors. [WTOP]

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Tuesday Morning Notes

Some Fairfax County Students Start In-Person Classes — Students in special education and career and technical education programs return to school buildings today for the first time since winter break. Under Fairfax County Public Schools’ Return to School plan, all grades will be phased into hybrid learning throughout the next month, concluding with third to sixth graders on Mar. 16. [WTOP]

FCPS Under Investigation for Possible Limiting Access for Students with Disabilities — “Emphasizing that the investigation in no way indicates a violation exists, a letter sent to Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand says that the district declined to provide in-person instruction to students with disabilities, while opening schools to in-person child care for general education students.” [WTOP]

Fairfax County Receives Federal Funds for Rental Assistance — “I’m happy to announce that we have secured $34 million from the Dept of Treasury to be used for rental assistance for our residents. As always, you will be able to access the support through our CSP line 703-222-0880.” [@JeffreyCMcKay/Twitter]

Vienna Extends Deadline for Residential Zoning Survey — “The deadline to take the residential standards survey for Code Create Vienna has been extended to Friday, March 5. Please take this brief survey to provide feedback on residential subjects, such as lot coverage, driveways, and porches.” [Town of Vienna/Twitter]

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The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra (FSO) is one of five arts organizations in Virginia to receive an ArtStar award from Dominion Energy this year.

The FSO announced on Jan. 27 that it had received a $10,000 grant from the utility company to support its “Link Up” music education program, which was developed by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall as a curriculum for students in third through fifth grade.

Dominion Energy created the ArtStar awards to “celebrate the contributions of arts organizations through their collaboration with schools and communities across the Commonwealth of Virginia,” according to the company’s website.

The awards went to one nonprofit arts and education organization with an annual budget under $1 million in each of Virginia’s five regions, making FSO the winner for the Northern region. Recipients were selected based on the artistic merit, innovation, and community impact of the program they submitted.

The other 2021 winners were Arts for Learning in Norfolk, Art for the Journey in Richmond, Halestone Foundation in Lexington, and The Origin Project in Big Stone Gap.

“These organizations show ways the creative spirit continues to thrive, whether through outdoor, virtual or digital programming,” Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation President Hunter A. Applewhite said. “Virginia is very fortunate to have these talented organizations committed to serving their local communities and youth.”

Based out of the Merrifield area, the Fairfax Symphony (2667 Prosperity Ave.) says it is the largest symphonic performing arts organization in Northern Virginia. It serves more than 15,000 people every season through performances and educational programs.

This was the fourth year that FSO provided the Link Up program to local schools, but the 2020-2021 school year was the first time that the curriculum was made available for free and virtually, leading to a 1,000% increase in the number of teachers who registered for the program, according to the orchestra.

Developed more than 30 years ago by Carnegie Hall, Link Up pairs orchestras with local elementary schools so students can learn about music and how to play an instrument or sing, culminating in a performance alongside the professional orchestra. The 2020-2021 program was shared by more than 120 partner organizations in the U.S. and around the world.

With the theme of “The Orchestra Swings,” FSO’s program focused on the connection between classical and jazz music, and featured the work of musicians like Duke Ellington, Florence Price, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein.

While the move was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the FSO says shifting Link Up to a virtual format allowed it to expand the program’s reach not just within Fairfax County Public Schools, which has been a partner for over 40 years, but also to schools in other jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Prince William counties as well as the City of Alexandria.

More than 10,000 students in 60 schools from around the D.C. region are participating in FSO’s Link Up program this year. The orchestra places a particular emphasis on included Title I schools, where at least 40% of students come from low-income families.

The program will conclude in May with a pre-recorded concert that will be shared in virtual classrooms. Students will accompany the FSO by singing along and playing recorders.

FSO Executive Director Jonathan Kerr says the organization is “thrilled and honored” to be a Dominion ArtStar award recipient.

“Our commitment to our community is stronger than ever, only strengthened by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Kerr said. “By sharing our concerts and education programs virtually, we are filling a critical need for quality arts programs to entertain, educate, inspire, sustain, and unite the communities we serve.”

Photo courtesy Dominion Energy

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Barring an abrupt change in plans, Fairfax County Public Schools students will start returning to school buildings next week for the first time since classes resumed after winter break in January.

The Fairfax County School Board approved a new Return to School timeline last Tuesday (Feb. 2) that lets 8,000 students in special education and career and technical education programs get two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction per week starting on Feb. 16. All FCPS students will be phased into the hybrid learning model by Mar. 16, though students who choose to stay all-virtual can do so.

The school board’s decision came three days before Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday (Feb. 5) that all school divisions in Virginia must offer families some form of in-person learning option by Mar. 16, citing the need to prevent learning losses.

An FCPS report released in November found an uptick in failing grades during the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, particularly for students with disabilities and English-language learners, and research from the CDC suggests schools can deliver in-person instruction safely as long as mitigation protocols are followed, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

With COVID-19 cases declining in Fairfax County recently and FCPS staff prioritized for vaccinations, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand expressed confidence last week that the division can pull of a successful return to in-person learning.

However, FCPS officials also said that transporting students will be a challenge due to the inability to ensure enough spacing on buses, and employees raised concerns in the past through the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers about inadequate implementation and enforcement of mitigation measures. FCPS has recorded 939 COVID-19 cases among staff, students, and visitors since Sept. 8.

Do you think FCPS is ready to restart in-person learning? Should the district move faster to expand in-person learning, or should it take a more cautious approach? Should schools be looking to resume in-person instruction at all?

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All school divisions in Virginia have been directed to establish options for in-person learning by Mar. 15, Gov. Ralph Northam announced today (Friday).

The state is also encouraging school divisions to develop plans to offer some form of classroom instruction during the summer. While extending the school year will not be mandatory, the governor’s office says his administration “is in the process of determining additional resources” to support summer school, including ensuring that educators are properly compensated.

“Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall,” Northam said during a press conference. “I want our schools to do this safely, and I want them to prioritize students who needs this the most…But it’s time for this to happen. It’s critical to prevent greater learning loss and to support our children’s health and well-being.”

Virginia State Superintendent for Public Instruction Dr. James Lane and State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver released interim guidance on Jan. 14 for local education and health officials to use as they determine when and how to offer classes and other activities to students in person.

Northam said he had a “very open, frank conversation” with superintendents from around the state before announcing the Mar. 15 deadline for offering in-person classes.

He also noted that “none of this is set in stone,” but declining COVID-19 case numbers, including testing positivity rates and hospitalizations, as well as increases in vaccinations give him confidence that schools will be able to proceed with reopening and summer school plans.

The governor’s announcement comes just three days after the Fairfax County School Board approved a plan to start phasing students into hybrid in-person learning on Feb. 16. All students who choose to get in-person classes instead of remaining all-virtual will be back in school buildings by Mar. 16 under the timeline developed by Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

FCPS officials have discussed the idea of extending the school year in the hopes of providing more in-person instruction and compensating for the learning losses many students have reportedly experienced as a result of distance learning. However, no official plans have been unveiled yet.

FCPS said in a statement that it has budgeted up to $30 million to support summer learning programs, and additional demand is anticipated.

“While there will be associated costs to the extended summer learning, we understand that these resources are essential to accommodate our students and staff during this unique and challenging transition period,” FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in the statement.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new research last week that indicates schools can safely operate in-person as long as they implement and enforce mitigation measures, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

“In-person learning is critical to the current and future well-being of our children,” Oliver said. “[The Virginia Department of Health] remains committed to supporting school districts in getting kids back into classrooms as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and get Virginians vaccinated.”

Photo via Governor of Virginia/Facebook

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Fairfax County Public Schools students will start resuming in-person instruction on Feb. 16 under a new timeline unanimously approved by the Fairfax County School Board yesterday.

The board intended to formally vote on the latest proposal from FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand during its regular meeting on Thursday (Feb. 4), but enough members stated that they would support the plan during the board’s work session on Tuesday that they ultimately decided to not wait to give their consensus.

“While there’s no guarantee for anything in life regarding a pandemic, I think this is a strong plan with the resources we have to return to some semblance of what school was like before COVID,” Melanie Meren, who represents Hunter Mill District on the school board, said. “Of course, a lot will be different, but I think it’s needed to help people recover their learning loss.”

As with previous Return to School plans, families have a choice between all-virtual learning and a hybrid model with two days of in-person learning and two days of distance learning. All students have been learning virtually since FCPS returned from winter break.

Under the new timeline, students who opt to get some in-person learning will return to school buildings in phases, starting on Feb. 16 with about 8,000 special education and career and technical education students and concluding with third through sixth-grade students on Mar. 16.

This schedule deviates from the one that was implemented in the fall before being suspended in having elementary school students restart in-person learning at the same time or even later than their older peers in middle and high school, whose return will be staggered across Mar. 2 and 9.

Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin questioned the two-week gaps between groups of elementary school students, noting that Loudoun County Public Schools plans to have students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in buildings by Feb. 16.

FCPS officials attributed the extended timeline for elementary schools primarily to staffing issues.

As of Feb. 1, FCPS has filled 74% of the 846 classroom monitor positions that it says are needed to restart in-person learning, but that still leaves 205 vacancies. The biggest gap is in grades three through six, where 94 positions – or 46% — remain vacant.

FCPS Deputy Superintendent Frances Ivey told the school board that, while some may prefer a more aggressive timeline, discussions with elementary school principals indicate that most of them support Brabrand’s proposal.

“There’s an overall positive consensus to the timeline, and recommendations were made based on that feedback,” Ivey said. Read More

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Monday Morning Notes

Winter Weather Advisory in Effect Until 10 A.M. — The D.C. area could experience light freezing rain and ice accumulations up to an inch this morning. Travelers should expect slippery road conditions, slow down, and use caution. [National Weather Service]

Fairfax County Police Chief Retires — Edwin C. Roessler officially retires today after leading the Fairfax County Police Department for eight years. He oversaw key reforms, such as the creation of a civilian review board and the introduction of body-worn cameras, but some officers reported “a disconnect” with department leaders on issues like discipline, compensation, communications and promotions. Deputy County Executive for Public Safety Dave Rohrer is now serving as interim chief as a search for a permanent successor continues. [The Washington Post]

Falls Church Nonprofit Theater Gets Permanent Home — “After a tumultuous six-year journey, Creative Cauldron will have a new home, thanks to the hard work and tenacity of Insight Property Group and the City to bring the best possible project to the Broad and Washington Crossroads.” [Falls Church News-Press]

McLean Art Teacher Finds Success with Zoom Classes — “[Pamela] Saunders, a mom of two who has taught in McLean since 2004, typically teaches classes at Brooksfield School, Chesterbrook Elementary, Franklin Sherman Elementary and Kent Gardens Elementary. But once the pandemic hit, she moved from the classroom to Zoom so students could continue art lessons while staying home.” [Patch]

Photo by Craig Fingar

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