Tysons, VA

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started, most Falls Church City Public Schools students are attending school in person five days a week.

Yesterday (Tuesday), 99% of elementary and 92% of secondary students went back to school full-time, fulfilling plans FCCPS had made to return students to pre-pandemic schedules on April 6.

Only 125 of the school division’s 2,500 students remain entirely virtual, according to FCCPS spokesperson John Wesley Brett.

“They came on foot, by car, bike, scooter, and bus to fill classrooms for the first time this year,” FCCPS said this morning. “It was a successful launch of in-person learning. The students’ experience with hybrid learning familiarized them with spacing protocols and mask-wearing, so they stepped smoothly into the new routines.”

A small cohort of students have been in-person since last fall, and beginning in February, elementary and secondary students came back for a hybrid schedule, with two days in-person and two days of virtual learning each week.

“With that success, and with nearly all of our staff and faculty fully vaccinated since mid-February, we feel confident in moving forward toward opening fully,” Brett said. “Despite the CDC’s recent update to its social distancing guidelines — lowering the 6-foot distance recommendation to 3 feet — we will still be adhering to the 6-feet distancing when possible.”

Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School students now attend school from 8:50 a.m. to 3:50 p.m., with early release at 1:15 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Meanwhile, middle and high school students are now attending in-person classes four days a week, with Wednesdays as a virtual day.

“That will continue through the end of the year,” Brett said, adding that there will be no more changes to the schedule.

“As a parent, the full return of our elementary age children and the vastly expanded four-day access to in-person learning for our middle and high school kids is celebrated this week,” said parent Courtney Mooney, who is the president of a return-to-school parent group, Falls Church City Parents For Schools. “Parents know how much hard work has gone into getting us to this point the past few months and we couldn’t be more thankful to each person who has helped make this return happen.”

Since FCCPS announced it would return to a full five days a week of in-person instruction, 21 students who left the system and opted for private school or homeschooling options have now returned, Brett said.

Parents were given a deadline of March 15 to tell FCCPS their students’ learning preferences, but since then, FCCPS has continued “accomodating all requests for changes through [Monday] and will continue to do so,” Brett said.

He said enrollment has increased with the move to in-person learning five days a week but did not have precise numbers on-hand.

FCCPS has outpaced the rest of Northern Virginia in returning students to in-person classes, which Superintendent Peter Noonan attributed to the school division’s independence and relatively small student population.

“Because we are small and we are independent, we do have some opportunities to do some things differently than other large school divisions,” he told WJLA.

Both Fairfax County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools pledged in March to return to five-day, full-time instruction this fall.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced on Monday (April 5) that the district is expanding opportunities for in-person learning this week and next week to certain pre-K through 12th grade students who have been identified as experiencing the greatest learning challenges.

Starting April 20, depending on school capacity, students attending hybrid instruction with a preference for full-time instruction may be able to start four days of in-person learning per week.

FCPS said that the expansion is based on the CDC’s new guidance permitting three feet of social distancing in classrooms depending on community transmission rates. The availability of space and staff will also affect how many students can get additional in-person instruction at each school.

Virginia Department of Health data shows that, based on CDC metrics, Fairfax County and Falls Church City currently have “substantial” transmission as of the week of April 3. They both had “high” transmission during the week of March 27, but Falls Church City was “moderate” the week before that.

The CDC says middle and high school students should maintain at least six feet of social distancing in areas with high community transmission, but that could be reduced to three feet when transmission is low, moderate, or substantial, as long as mask use is universal.

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Morning Notes

Wind Advisory in Effect Today — A wind advisory will be in effect today for the D.C. area, including Fairfax County, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Winds could reach speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Gusts could blow around unsecured objects and result in fallen tree limbs or power disruptions. [National Weather Service, Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management/Twitter]

Northam Plans to Speed Up Marijuana Legalization — “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to ask the legislature to legalize the adult possession of an ounce or less of marijuana beginning on July 1, according to several sources with knowledge of the administration’s ongoing discussions with lawmakers. Lawmakers passed legislation last month that wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2024.” [VPM]

Falls Church Narrows Down Possible New School Names — Committees tasked with selecting new names for the city’s elementary and high schools will present five recommendations each to the Falls Church City School Board by April 9. The groups have whittled hundreds of suggestions down to 18 options for the high school and 53 for the middle school. The school board will make the final decisions on May 13. [Falls Church News-Press]

Greater Washington Partnership Envisions Regional Train System — “An alliance of the Washington area’s top chief executives is pushing for Maryland and Virginia commuter trains to cross jurisdictions to provide service that would be more frequent and more interconnected…It could be achieved within a quarter-century, said the group, which has rallied support from transit advocates, the region’s passenger railroads and public- and private-sector groups.” [The Washington Post]

Satellite Telecommunications Company Moves Into Tysons — SpaceLink announced earlier this week that it has established a headquarters office in Tysons. The company, which also operates in Silicon Valley and Huntsville, Alabama, is developing a “network of satellites in medium Earth orbit that will provide secure, continuous, high-bandwidth communications between its clients’ low Earth orbit spacecraft and the ground.” [Virginia Business]

Fairfax County Sees Dip in Unemployment Rate — Fairfax County’s jobless rate dropped almost half a percent between December 2020 and January 2021, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission. However, unemployment rates throughout Northern Virginia are still more than double pre-pandemic numbers. [Sun Gazette]

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The City of Falls Church’s plan to reopen school buildings remains on track, and some students could be learning in-person full-time after spring break, which runs from March 29 to April 2.

Like their Fairfax County peers, Falls Church City Public Schools students currently have the option of going into school twice a week or taking all-virtual classes. Students getting special education services and children in the Virginia Preschool Initiative are in-person four days a week.

“It’s been quite a couple of weeks,” FCCPS Superintendent Peter Noonan said during a school board meeting Tuesday night (March 9).

Unlike Fairfax County, though, Falls Church has announced plans to potentially let some students attend in-person classes five days a week in the near future.

Staff at Jessie Thackrey Preschool and Thomas Jefferson and Mount Daniel elementary schools have started planning for a return to full-time, in-person instruction on April 6. Classes will be led by teaching staff members who have been fully vaccinated.

FCCPS spokesman John Wesley Brett said, on that day, both elementary schools will return to the “pre-pandemic” schedule of 8:50 a.m. to 3:50 p.m., including the usual early release at 1:15 p.m. on Wednesdays.

“Each school will implement mitigation procedures and work to ensure that continuity of instruction is provided,” he said. “Parents may opt to have their child remain in a virtual model and have until March 15 to make their choice known.”

FCCPS also hopes to eventually expand full-time, in-person learning to secondary students, but planning is more complex, Noonan said.

FCCPS is also in the process of reviewing new guidance on school reopenings that the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education released on Tuesday.

“There is a growing chorus from VDH and VDOE to get our students back in school sooner rather than later,” he said. “That’s something I think we can all agree with, and it’s something we all want.”

The VDOE advises schools to weigh the risks of not opening schools over concerns that 100% of COVID-19 risks cannot be mitigated.

“Long-term school closures as a mitigation strategy for COVID-19 transmission may cause inadvertent harm to children,” the guidance said. “For example, children who do not have in-person instruction may suffer learning loss with long-term effects, mental health issues, or a regression in social skills.”

FCCPS could move forward more quickly if it follows the lead of other school systems across the nation that have reduced social distancing requirements from six feet to three feet, argues Courtney Mooney, a parent who has been advocating for five days a week of in-person instruction as part of the group Falls Church City Parents for Schools.

Mooney noted that the six-feet rule is not universally agreed upon by scientists and health experts. For instance, the World Health Organization recommends physical distancing of at least one meter — or three feet — after a study it funded found that would be sufficient to significantly reduce the risk of infection by the novel coronavirus.

“I think Superintendent Noonan wants our kids to be back,” Mooney said. “FCCPS needs to continue actively engaging parents and providing the level of detail they’ve provided the last two weeks.”

She credited FCCPS for responding to what she described as mounting frustration and declining trust among parents. As more details are released, parents are trusting the planning process more, she said.

Noonan has also incorporated parents, teachers, staff and community representatives into a newly formed Reopening Advisory Group that met for the first time this week, Mooney said.

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Following in the footsteps of his Fairfax County counterpart, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields is proposing a one-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate as part of the city’s advertised fiscal year 2022 budget.

However, because of rising assessed values, the average homeowner will still experience a $291 increase in their tax bill next year.

Presented to the city council on Monday (March 8), the advertised budget increases city government operating expenses by 2.3% (or $946,567) and public schools funding by 2.5% (or just over $1 million).

“With vaccines rolling out, and springtime in the air, we need to maintain vigilance but certainly have optimism toward the future — and hopefully, this budget reflects that as well,” Shields said.

Falls Church City School Board Chair Shannon Litton called the proposed $1 million funding increase for FCCPS “a bit better than we expected, given COVID-19.” The school division will also be receiving an additional $20,000 from the state and $31,000 from the federal government, she said.

Shields said the budget keeps revenues in line with forecasts from December without proposing a larger increase on residential real estate taxpayers. The city saw year-over-year increases in taxes on groceries and online sales, but a large decrease in revenue from hospitality taxes.

Highlights of the budget include funding for:

  • $145,000 for body-worn cameras and civilian positions to support the department, which is a first step in addressing recommendations from the Use of Force Review Committee
  • $200,000 in coronavirus contingency funds to address uncertainties, either revenue shortfalls or increased demand for services and assistance
  • $150,000 to develop a Parks Master Plan
  • $100,000 for the Affordable Housing Fund to supplement the $3.75 million Amazon REACH grant funds and leverage future developer contributions.

Shields has also proposed increasing stormwater management rates by 2%, or $4, for a median homeowner to pay for projects intended to address smaller-scale nuisance flooding. He anticipates that the city will need to increase rates by 10 to 15% for the next five years to fund six larger-scale stormwater management projects.

The advertised budget gives Falls Church City employees a 3% merit compensation increase, and a 3.5% step increase to uniformed police staff, but Shields told the city council on Monday that this small-scale growth is not sustainable in the long-term.

“My budget guidance for six years in a row was to keep non-personnel expenses flat,” he said. “So, it is really important to emphasize that after six years in a row of doing that — in addition to cuts made last year due to COVID-19 — our budgets are extremely lean.”

The city has about $3.94 million in unfunded needs across all departments, he said. These range from adding positions, including police officers, IT staff, and economic development staff, to maintaining public amenities, such as basketball and tennis courts and athletic fields.

Other highlights include:

  • A $500,000 decrease in debt service, as due to the cancellation of planned debt issuance during the current fiscal year and refunding prior bonds from 2013 and 2011 at lower interest rates.
  • A $4.5 million transfer from the 10-acre land at the George Mason High School campus to capital reserves.
  • Anticipated concessions from Founders Row for $1.8 million, which will also be placed in capital reserves.

In addition to flood mitigation, other public safety spending includes investments in sidewalks, paving — which Shields said has been underfunded since the Great Recession — and neighborhood traffic calming activities. State grants will pay for improvements to the Park Avenue “Great Streets” project, the Oak Street Bridge and the Washington and Columbia intersection.

The city will also receive funding through the Biden administration’s American Recovery Act.

“That congressional aid [is] needed and necessary, and we will use it very well for infrastructure and capital needs,” Shields said.

Community members will get a chance to learn about the budget and share their comments at a town hall from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (March 11). Budget meetings will be held on March 22 and April 12, and there will be a second town hall on April 15 before the city council is slated to adopt the budget on April 26.

Photo via City of Falls Church Government/Facebook, charts via City of Falls Church

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Today is the first day of hybrid learning in the City of Falls Church, and for some, it’s an introduction to the recently unveiled new George Mason High School.

Falls Church City Public Schools streamed a virtual ribbon cutting on Sunday (Feb. 21) to open the school and thank everyone involved in the process of completing this project.

“This has been a long time in the making,” FCCPS Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan said. “I just want to thank everybody for your continued support for the last decade or more, making sure we were on track.”

The $108 million project to construct a new high school began in earnest with a bond referendum passed in 2017 to finance the construction. Workers broke ground on the endeavor in June 2019.

Among the features of the new five-story school are a black box theatre, a green roof, fabrication and robotics labs, a gym with an elevated running track, a main gym, and an auditorium. It also includes counseling offices, a café, library and media services, and maker space.

“My friends and I have been watching the schools go through this process of building a new high school since we were in elementary school, and it’s really wonderful seeing the final product,” said Elisabeth Snyder, a senior and the Falls Church City School Board’s student representative. “I can’t wait to learn in this building, and I know students are going to have a wonderful time learning in this building for generations to come.”

The new building is designed for a student capacity of 1,200 to 1,500.

The new high school was built next to the existing one. The school now connects to the adjacent Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.

“Education has always been the crown jewel of our community and always will be,” City of Falls Church Mayor David Tartar said. “And this school will ensure for years and generations to come, students will be coming and learning the most important lessons in life here in this building.”

The old high school is set for conversion into a mixed-use development known as Little City Commons.

The names of the high school and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School are still subject to change after the city school board voted on Dec. 8 to rename both. The decision came after some community members advocated for the changes following protests against racial injustice and police brutality last year.

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Friday Morning Notes

Pavement Could Be Icy After Overnight Refreeze — “If you are heading out this morning, watch for the potential of black ice. Temperatures are currently below freezing so sidewalks can be slippery especially if left untreated. Remember that bridges, ramps, & overpasses freeze first.” [Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management/Twitter]

Winter Weather Delays COVID-19 Vaccine Shipments — “The Virginia Department of Health anticipates the delay impacts this week’s shipment of approximately 106,800 doses to Virginia. The delay is attributed to distribution channels that are shut down in the Midwest and elsewhere.” [Patch]

Residential Trash Pickups Suspended — “Due to inclement weather, RESIDENTIAL TRASH COLLECTION HAS BEEN SUSPENDED TODAY.” [Fairfax County Public Works/Twitter]

Fairfax County Schools Are All-Virtual Today — All Fairfax County Public Schools students are learning virtually today as inclement weather continues. Activities on school grounds, including extracurricular activities and adult and community education classes, have been canceled for the day, and access to school facilities is limited. [FCPS]

Fairfax County Awarded Federal Funds for Homeless Assistance Programs — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded Fairfax County $9.5 million to support 20 ongoing projects, a 3% increase from the previous year. The funding will go to permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing projects, while helping providers pay for leasing and rent costs as well as services. [Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development]

Falls Church City School Renaming Process Begins — “The first organizing meetings, held through Zoom, one for the renaming of the high school and one for the renaming of the elementary school, were held last week as the two advisory committees to the F.C. School Board, each made up of about 20 citizen volunteers (out of a whopping total of 77 applicants), convened.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Tysons Tech Company Acquires Maryland Cybersecurity FirmApplied Insight announced on Wednesday (Feb. 17) that it has acquired the Maryland-based company Bridges Inc., allowing it to complement its services with artificial intelligence and “deliver end-to-end cloud infrastructure and data analytics in a way that is unique to the industry.” [Applied Insight]

Photo via FCCPS Office of Facilities Services/Twitter

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Monday Morning Notes

Fairfax County Receives First COVID-19 Vaccine Shipment — “The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines was received today by the Fairfax County Health Department. These vaccines will be administered to people included in the Virginia Department of Health’s “Phase 1a” – healthcare workers not affiliated with hospitals.” [Fairfax County Emergency]

Fire and Rescue Chief and Personnel Get Vaccinated for COVID-19 — “This morning [Dec. 27] the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered to @ChiefJohnButler & #FCFRD personnel…The vaccine provides another layer of protection for our providers and the communities they serve.” [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department/Twitter]

Falls Church City School Board Seeks Applicants — “The Falls Church City School Board seeks applications from qualified individuals to fulfill the term of School Board member Lawrence Webb, who will resign effective January 4, 2021.” [Falls Church City Public Schools]

Local Legislators Back Attorney General Challenger — “Dels. Marcus Simon and Kathleen Murphy, whose districts include portions of McLean, and Del. Mark Keam, whose district includes portions of Vienna and Oakton, are among those who are supporting Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) in his bid to oust two-term Democratic attorney general Mark Herring, according to the Jones campaign.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The results of a recent survey on whether to rename Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and George Mason High School triggered surprise, anger, and tears during a Falls Church City Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 17).

A majority of respondents — 56% overall — support keeping the names Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, two key historical figures from Virginia who publicly supported an end to slavery, while privately enslaving Black people. For George Mason, 26% support a name change, and for Thomas Jefferson, that population is 23%. The rest had no opinion.

K12 Insight, a consultant hired by the school board, surveyed parents, staff members, students in grades 6-12, and community members from Oct. 14 to 28 to gauge whether they want to see new names for the schools. For both schools, three-quarters of the community members who responded wanted to keep the names, and the margins were smaller for parents, students, and staff.

The discussion to rename the schools began on June 30. With the survey results back, school board members have scheduled a vote on whether to move forward with the name changes for Dec. 8.

Those who support changing the names cited the fact that the men participated in slavery and urged the school to embrace social change and support students who may feel marginalized.

Those who voted to keep the names responded that slavery was a norm at the time that should not disqualify these men from being honored.

School Board member Lawrence Webb, the only Black person on the board, said during a work session on Tuesday that he was surprised by the results of the survey.

“There are a lot of folks who are progressive and supportive of community relations,” he said. “I’m sort of bothered by how folks have couched this conversation of ‘This is something that was acceptable at the time.'”

Webb disagreed with those who characterized a school name change as a waste of resources. The amount of money would be “nominal,” and for George Mason, the timing would coincide with an ongoing project to build a brand new high school.

According to FCCPS, renaming George Mason would cost an estimated $96,760, and renaming Thomas Jefferson would cost around $13,500. The K12 Insight survey cost $8,500. Read More

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