Newsletter
The Fairfax County School Board (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools will provide additional compensation for select staff members, particularly bus drivers and special education teachers, and bolster its mental health services, thanks to a new round of federal COVID-19 relief.

The ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) spending plan approved by the Fairfax County School Board on Thursday (Aug. 26) devotes $188.6 million to various expenses tied to keeping schools open and safe during the ongoing pandemic.

The funds will last for three years and came from the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March.

“We believe our ESSER 3 plan addresses key areas to support schools as they return to in-person instruction from the pandemic as well as increase our focus on serving students and staff in our school division with an equity lens,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement for the board’s meeting last week.

The school board approved the measure almost unanimously. Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin abstained, restating concerns that the spending plan doesn’t contain the level of detail she wanted to ensure adequate oversight.

The multi-year funding covers:

  • Nearly $55 million for academic intervention
  • $46 million to pay special education teachers more for increased workloads connected with the pandemic and individualized education plans
  • $23 million for social and emotional learning needs of students
  • Nearly $14 million for after-school programming and transportation
  • $10 million for cafeteria, classroom, and outdoor monitors
  • $9 million for cybersecurity
  • $3 million to increase bus drivers’ starting pay from $19.58 per hour to $22.91

The academic and social and emotional learning categories encompass everything from tutoring support for before and after school programs to mental health materials, technical education, and transportation to school programs on Saturdays.

“Each school will receive funding allocations as well as stipends for academics and wellness,” FCPS said in a news release on Friday (Aug. 27). “The academic and wellness allocations are to be used to directly support students. The amount each school receives is based on its project enrollment and need.”

For academic and wellness-related items, which make up 82% of the allocations, elementary schools are expected to receive about $50,000 to $189,000, middle schools will get $69,000 to $298,000, and high schools can count on around $105,000 to $368,000.

Schools will get similar amounts to address social and emotional learning needs, resulting in about $37 per student.

The plan was designed to give schools flexibility in how they spend their money, while also establishing checks and balances for approving and overseeing the money, according to FCPS.

“All schools will create a plan that outlines how they will use their ESSER III funding to support students’ academics and wellness, and they will post information about their plan on the school website,” FCPS said.

The plan also calls on FCPS to fast track the addition of 10 positions for its English Language Learner programs, which already include 887 positions, 98% of which are teachers, Brabrand noted.

According to the state, $124 million was available as of April 30 for Fairfax County, and the remaining third will become available after FCPS submits a plan to the state due on Wednesday (Sept. 1).

The Commonwealth required school districts to post their plans for using the money within 90 days of receiving the funds. Districts were also required to gather public input, which FCPS did with a hearing on June 7.

The ESSER plan is separate from the year-end budget review that the school board approved during the same meeting on Thursday, which included one-time bonuses for FCPS staff.

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(Updated at 12:45 p.m.) All high school students will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in school sports, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced this morning (Monday).

The requirement will apply to students who plan to get involved in Virginia High School League winter and spring sports this school year, along with activities like dance team and out-of-season workouts that require a physical, but it will take effect on Nov. 8, prior to the postseason for fall sports like football and field hockey.

An FCPS spokesperson says the Nov. 8 date was chosen, because that’s when the school system will start having indoor sports.

“As FCPS students return to our school buildings, our priority must be on our academic programming,” the spokesperson said. “Our data is showing that a significant number of our cases stem from athletics and a disproportionate number of students are having their learning impacted. Therefore, we have made the decision to mandate vaccinations for students who wish to partake in a number of close contact athletic disciplines. By taking this step, we hope to limit the number of students who are being instructed to remain out of school buildings.”

The announcement comes one week after FCPS started its 2021-2022 academic year and 10 days after the district issued a vaccination mandate for employees that’s expected to take effect in October.

As recently as last Tuesday (Aug. 24), school officials had expressed uncertainty about the legality of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students.

“As I understand it, that’s not something we’re able to do yet in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Brabrand said at a school board work session. “…I do think, just like the staff vaccination mandate, we need to, as this pandemic evolves, continue to go back and return to these kinds of issues that can really help make our schools safe for in-person instruction now and forever.”

Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders, who served on a state task force that looked at the issue, confirmed that Virginia law requires any vaccination requirements for students come from the Virginia Department of Health, which would refer the mandate to the General Assembly.

“The legislature is not meeting again until January, but this may be an area where this board, as we look at our legislative priorities, would urge that,” Corbett-Sanders said.

However, in that same meeting, some board members raised concerns about students missing class time due to sports-related COVID-19 cases and the amount of time that health officials needed to conduct contact tracing, since there was no system in place to quickly determine who had already been vaccinated.

FCPS says vaccinations can be mandated for student athletes without state approval, because sports aren’t required activities and students don’t earn grades or credit for participating in them.

According to the FCPS case dashboard, 234 people, including 164 students and 69 staff members, have reported testing positive for COVID-19 to the school system this month as of Friday (Aug. 27).

Most cases appear to be occurring in elementary schools, but Brabrand says the majority of instances where high school students need to pause instruction have been the result of exposure during athletic activities.

“While we know this is a difficult decision for some families, it is an essential step that we must take to limit the duration of a pause, getting students back to the classroom and their activities sooner, but still safely,” Brabrand said, noting that FCPS will work with the Fairfax County Health Department to ensure students have access to the vaccine before the mandate takes effect.

Brabrand’s full message to the FCPS community can be found below: Read More

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The Fairfax County School Board meets on Aug. 26 (via FCPS/YouTube)

The Fairfax County School Board approved bonuses for all public school employees yesterday (Thursday) in a gesture intended thank them for their work during the pandemic.

According to Fairfax County Public Schools, the district had $82.1 million available in its year-end budget review. The school board voted 10-1 to approve the measure with Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin opposing and Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish abstaining.

The bonuses will be paid in November and consist of $500 for temporary workers and $1,000 for both full-time and hourly contracted employees.

“$1,000 doesn’t touch the surface. I understand that. I think we all do here,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said at the board meeting.

During a work session on Tuesday (Aug. 24), the board considered giving the same amount to everyone, including some 2,500 substitute teachers, but FCPS staff noted that a person who only worked one day would then be eligible for the higher amount.

The total cost of the one-time bonuses is $32.7 million. The board also approved other revenue adjustments, including $12.2 million for textbooks and nearly $6.6 million in major maintenance projects.

While multiple school board members described the bonuses as “modest,” the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, a union that represents educators and other non-administrative staff, expressed appreciation for the gesture.

McLaughlin said before the vote that she supported the bonuses for staff, but she voted against the motion because of one line item involving Food and Nutrition Services computer equipment and software services.

McLaughlin cited concerns over FCPS spending $1.8 million on Food and Nutrition Services, saying it’s meant to be a self-sustaining grant fund that had previously been allocated $10 million.

Omeish said she would abstain from the vote to urge FCPS to adjust how it considers spending money at the end of each budget year.

“What’s left at year-end is not a trivial amount,” she said. “I’m hopeful that in this coming cycle, we can…have a process that is more thorough at the end of the year, one that involves community input or at least more justification around the monies allocated to prevent the rubber-stamping problem.”

Omeish also said that the FCPS equity team should lead from the beginning to address disproportionate needs and properly prioritize such spending.

The board also passed a $188.6 million plan for spending federal COVID-19 stimulus money from its ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) fund. McLaughlin abstained.

The multi-year plan includes funds to pay special education teachers more for increased workloads, to support students’ social and emotional learning needs, for cybersecurity, to increase bus drivers’ starting pay, and to hire cafeteria, classroom, and outdoor monitors, among other expenses.

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Spring Hill Elementary School students attend a morning meeting on the first day of the 2021-2022 school year (via FCPS)

The first day of school is always a nerve-wracking affair, but the stakes felt especially high on Monday (Aug. 23), when Fairfax County Public Schools brought back roughly 180,000 students after more than a year of mostly virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the return to school unfolded relatively smoothly, students, staff, and parents raised a multitude of concerns as well, primarily around transportation and the lack of distancing and masks in cafeterias, Fairfax County School Board members said during a work session on Tuesday (Aug. 24).

The transportation challenges were largely expected, as FCPS advised families last week that a school bus driver shortage would lead to delays. In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Scott Brabrand reported that the district had filled 86.4% of its 1,121 bus driver positions as of Monday, leaving 152 vacancies.

Still, the advance warning didn’t make the delays less frustrating for students and their parents.

“[Parents] want to know how long is it going to take for their children to come in, and [there were] also lots of concerns with students who were left outside to wait for their buses, and they don’t know how long,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said. “Is it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 45? When we have the heat we had yesterday and rain that’s going to come, because let’s be clear, this transportation issue is not going to be resolved any time soon.”

According to an FCPS spokesperson, the Langley area has been hit hardest by the shortage, though the school system was unable to provide data on exactly how many students have been affected by bus delays.

Noting that the school system has 20 “double-back” routes this year, compared to just eight last year, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg told the board that delays were reduced by 40% from Monday morning to Tuesday.

Even on Tuesday morning, however, late runs to Langley High School, Spring Hill Elementary, and Longfellow Middle School were all an hour off of their schedules.

“We know everybody is anxious about it, including us,” Platenberg said. “We’re excited about this start for the school year. We have some extreme challenges with this bus driver shortage, but we are working with our communities.”

He added that kiss-and-ride lines at schools were “jammed” on Monday and Tuesday, calling it “a healthy problem to have” since the crowds indicated that parents were heeding FCPS’ advice to drive or walk their children to school if possible.

One parent who asked to not be identified described the kiss-and-ride experience at her son’s elementary school as “absolute pandemonium,” with supervising staff seemingly scrambling to figure out where students were supposed to go.

In one case, a 4-year-old girl ended up on a shuttle to an after-school program that she doesn’t attend, leading her parents to post on social media that she was missing.

“I’m not trying to disparage the teachers who are clearly out there doing the best that they can, but from a system standpoint,” the parent said on Tuesday. “Yesterday and today were very, very hot days to just sit there for 30 minutes with no shade. What if it’s a pouring rainy day? What is your system? There has to be a better way to think through this.” Read More

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(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed a case today (Friday) that sought to recall Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen.

Tholen’s legal team had argued against letting the case continue in court, which came after a parents’ group called Open FCPS Coalition collected and submitted over 5,000 signatures to protest school closures during the pandemic.

“Citizens who disagree with elected officials’ policy choices should vote for someone else in the next election, not ask courts to yank them from office,” Tholen’s legal team previously argued in seeking to dismiss the case.

The group, which has received funding in part from a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a nonprofit committed to with center-right policy advocacy, voiced opposition to how the school board handled the closures. A petition submitted to court argued that keeping schools closed hurt children with disabilities the most.

The legal team for Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, argued in part that the lawsuit contained “no allegations that comes close to showing that Tholen acted with ‘wilful,’ ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ intent.”

“We are very pleased that the Court dismissed this case and saw it for what it was – an attempt by a small number of people to substitute their judgment for that of the full elected School Board,” a Fairfax County School Board spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to a full, five-day schedule of in-person classes starting next week.”

Democrats weighed in on the matter Friday.

“Republican operatives are leading these so-called ‘bi-partisan’ groups seeking to overturn the democratic election of our officials,” Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chair Bryan Graham said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The pandemic has caused a difficult situation for all of us, and our school board has done a tremendous job balancing the need to keep our community safe while serving the education needs of our students” and more.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat whose office covers part of Tysons, called the dismissal a signal that recall efforts are a waste of time and resources. He said on Twitter that the “statute is being misused to frivolously harass elected officials by a small minority” of constituents.

Open FCPS Coalition had also been collecting signatures to recall two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen. The group previously said those members were chosen because those representatives gathered the least amount of votes, which lowered the amount of signatures needed to file recall efforts.

When it submitted the petition for Tholen on July 19, Open FCPS Coalition said only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way that it felt was consistent and a priority.

The petition required that a special prosecutor to handle the case. Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley of Albemarle County was appointed to that role on Aug. 10.

“[Hingeley] concluded that he could not prosecute the recall petition because it did not have a sufficient basis to move forward,” the school district said in a statement. “So, he moved to dismiss the petition and the judge granted the motion to dismiss.”

In a statement, Open FCPS derided Hingeley’s decision to request a dismissal as evidence of politics being put ahead of children’s well-being.

“It is a shame that the voices of thousands of parents have been silenced by a Commonwealth’s Attorney, who just like the School Board, is more interested in politics than the wellbeing of our kids,” Open FCPS Coalition founder Dee O’Neal said. “Hingeley chose special interests over parents and children who deserved representation.”

In a statement, Tholen called the legal case “an ordeal” but said she was glad she could now focus her attention on the students who will return for five days a week of in-person learning on Monday (Aug. 23).

“I am excited to say, we have over 180,000 students starting school next week. Those students need our full attention to keep them safe and to give them the best education possible,” she said. “They are still suffering in a pandemic, just like the rest of us. Please, let us put these divisive events behind us and work together to give our students the positive, undivided attention they deserve.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has implemented a universal masking rule and announced earlier today that staff will be required to be vaccinated by late October.

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Morning Notes

Masks Now Required in County Facilities — “Beginning Monday, Aug. 9, all employees and visitors — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear a mask while inside all Fairfax County facilities to help stop the spread of COVID-19…The rise in COVID-19 cases has resulted in the Fairfax Health District moving from moderate to substantial community transmission. This is due to the on-going spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.” [Fairfax County Health Department]

Suspect in Ritz Carlton Stabbing Identified — D.C. resident Igor Koob, 34, was treated for non-life-threatening injuries and arrested for aggravated malicious wounding after he allegedly stabbed a woman at The Ritz Carlton in Tysons on Wednesday (Aug. 4). The woman had stab wounds to her upper body, and as of Friday (Aug. 6), she was still in the hospital for life-threatening injuries, according the Fairfax County Police Department’s weekly crime report. [FCPD]

Falls Church Candidates Launch Campaigns — “This week marked the formal launch of two campaigns in what will be a busy fall season in Falls Church leading up to the November 2 election to fill three of seven seats on the City Council and School Board here. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly launched her campaign as one of six candidates seeking election to the City Council, and first time candidate David Ortiz announced the launch of his campaign as one of eight candidates all running for the first time for School Board.” [Falls Church News-Press]

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A group of parents submitted over 5,000 signatures yesterday (Monday) to the Fairfax County Clerk of Court in a petition to recall Fairfax County School Board member Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, over school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Open FCPS Coalition formed in the fall to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and has been campaigning to recall Tholen and two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen.

“I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week,” Tholen said in a statement. “As a former classroom educator and now a school board member, I have always worked for my students’ well-being and to help them reach their utmost potential. I will continue to put our students’ best interests first.”

Recall supporters have a different perspective.

The petitions that citizens signed argue that, in supporting an all-virtual start to the most recent school year, the school board was not acting in children’s best interests. The petitions also allege the school board violated state and local laws and regulations guaranteeing students with disabilities a free, appropriate education.

“Just how far behind are our students? How will these deficits be met?” Zia Tompkins, a coalition board member and former school board candidate, said, raising questions about staffing and other issues. “Parents have been left in the dark about these issues and…as such have real doubts as to whether the Fairfax County school system is even serious about opening full-time in-person for the fall.”

The group met outside the Fairfax County Courthouse before a dozen supporters and leaders went inside to deliver the signatures.

While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, its largest funding contributions have come from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.

The coalition’s largest expenditure has been for signature collection services from a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm, Blitz Canvassing LLC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The group hopes a judge will review the signatures as part of a trial that could ultimately lead to Tholen being removed from her position.

Open FCPS Coalition says only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority. But only three school board members were chosen for recall efforts because of the group’s limited resources.

Coalition board member Nellie Rhodes said Monday that work to recall Cohen and Omeish continues.

The coalition’s website says it has over two-thirds of the 4,000 signatures needed to recall Cohen, which if obtained, would represent over 10% of the total number of people who voted in her election — the threshold required for a recall to be considered in Virginia.

After shifting entirely to virtual learning on March 13, 2020, FCPS began phasing in some in-person learning in October, but the process was put on hold when COVID-19 cases started to surge around Thanksgiving.

Students began 2021 in remote settings before the school board approved the return of a hybrid model — where students could opt for two days of in-person classes or to remain all-virtual — starting on Feb. 16. FCPS expanded its in-person offerings to four days for some students in April.

Open FCPS Coalition board member and Vienna resident Hemang Nagar says he ended up taking his daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, out of school in the fall because of the distress virtual classes caused her. He said she used to love school but would cry whenever he opened the computer.

“Virtual learning was an utter disaster for her and so many like her,” he said.

His daughter, who is now 10, returned to her elementary school when in-person classes restarted in February.

“They pretend to care but never put their words into action that does any good for any students,” Nagar said of the school board members that the coalition is targeting for recalls.

FCPS plans to resume a five-day in-person week for students this fall.

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Morning Notes

(Updated at 8:15 p.m. on 7/23/2021) Fairfax County School Board Members at Nats Park During Shooting — Karl Frisch and Megan McLaughlin, who respectively represent the Providence and Braddock districts on the school board, were at Nationals Park on Saturday (July 17) when gunfire outside the stadium sent fans running for cover and suspended the game. Three people were injured in the shooting, including a woman who was attending the game, according to police. [Karl Frisch/Twitter, Megan McLaughlin/Twitter]

Virginia Announces Universal Broadband Plan — Gov. Ralph Northam announced a plan on Friday (July 16) to invest $700 million to make broadband services universally accessible throughout the state. The funds will come from the state’s $4.3 billion federal COVID-19 relief allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. [The Washington Post]

Mosaic District Art Gallery Presents New Show — The Torpedo Factory Artists Association will present the results of its regional painting competition at The Gallery @ Mosaic (links corrected) from July 23 through August 22. With more than 30 paintings from nearly 400 submissions, the show will the association’s first regional painting showcase and give the pop-up gallery its first in-person reception since it recently reopened after closing for the COVID-19 pandemic. [Northern Virginia Magazine]

McLean Little League Softball Teams Celebrate Strong Seasons — “It has been the case for many years now, so it was no surprise that McLean Little League all-star girls softball teams again had strong showings in recent state tournaments, with one squad winning the championship and two others finishing second.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

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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.

Read More

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Morning Notes

Metro Extends Service Hours This Weekend — Starting Sunday (July 18), Metro will provide rail service until midnight for the first time since operating hours were reduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The transit agency approved a package of fare reductions and service improvements in June aimed at attracting riders as more offices are set to reopen in the fall. [The Washington Post]

Freedom Hill Park to Recognize Historic Carter Family — As part of an interpretive history project, the Fairfax County Park Authority is inviting the public to a traditional land ceremony and sign dedication at Freedom Hill Park in Vienna on July 31. The new signs will tell the story of the multiracial Carter family, whose accomplishments include establishing the First Baptist Church of Vienna and possibly spying for the Union during the Civil War. [FCPA]

Fairfax County School Board Elects New Chair — The school board unanimously approved Sully District representative Stella Pekarsky as its new chair for the 2021-2022 school year. Board members thanked Mason District representative Ricardy Anderson for her time as chair amid the pandemic and noted she will get some much-deserved time with her family. [FCPS]

Food Trucks Stop by Providence Community Center — “Come by the Providence Community Center tomorrow [July 16] from 11am to 1:30pm for some freshly made empanadas by @empanadasdemza! This will make for a great snack over the weekend so make sure you grab some extra to share with your friends and families!” [Supervisor Dalia Palchik/Twitter]

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