Tysons, VA

With uncertainty about the future of social distancing requirements and community health guidelines, Fairfax County Public School Board members are discussing what the upcoming fall semester might look like for teachers and students.

Though they said they won’t be making an official decision until the June meeting, board members bounced around ideas for online schedules and smaller class sizes at a work session on Monday (May 11).

The main concerns for the board include how to respect social distancing measures, how to help students who might not be able to return due to health concerns for themselves or their family, training for teachers and staff and finally how to ensure the continued quality of education, according to a slideshow shared at the work session.

Given current conditions, though, the board said it is looking at several possible options for the fall semester and is waiting to make a final decision until it has more guidance.

“We lack clarity around the time and conditions we might return under,” said Sloan Presidio, FCPS Superintendent. “We are hoping to get that clarity from the state in the coming weeks.”

The first possibility would be to begin the school year virtually using distance learning, giving faculty to revise schedules and curriculum that “best-fits students needs.”

To help with child care services and other needs that are usually fulfilled with in-person education, Presidio suggested that FCPS would work with faith-based organizations and similar institutions to fill the gap.

Yet another scenario would be returning to school in the fall, but with social distancing guidelines.

“That would require us to serve students based on their needs,” Presidio said, adding that priority would be given to students who would benefit the most from in-person instruction. Examples include students with learning disabilities or students learning English as a second language.

He also noted that it is easier for middle school and high school students to transition online than for elementary school students who have shorter attention spans.

Melanie K. Meren, Hunter Mill District Representative voiced concern at the meeting over the best ways to build communities for younger students, who are familiar with touch and play in their learning process.

“I would like to have more information about how we are going to acclimate our youngest learners to school,” she said.

A final scenario would be fully returning to a normal school schedule and offering online enrollment opportunities for students who wish to stay home, according to the meeting documentation.

Ricardy Anderson, a Mason District Board Member also suggested that schools send out a survey to parents, asking if they would let their students return to school regardless of FCPS’s decision — so FCPS could plan ahead and offer a more advanced online learning opportunities and partnerships.

Karen Keys-Gamarra an at-large board member also suggested that FCPS should work harder to communicate plans with parents and said that better channels of communication would “relieve anxiety” that many people are currently feeling.

Going forward, Anderson said FCPS must develop a “robust infrastructure” to guide online learning.

For a worst-case scenario, FCPS is also working on a plan if, for whatever reason, students would have to once again transition back into distance learning.

To help with the mental welfare of students in the coming months, regardless of in-person or online instruction, the board said they want to implement a stronger social-emotional learning plan.

“That is foundational to everything else we want to do academically,” one of the board members said.

The cost of the program would cost roughly $7 million according to the documentation at the meeting, which when broken down includes roughly $1 million for development of the curriculum, another $1 million for the screening tools and the remaining $5 million for new staffers and instructors.

Photo via Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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Locals will soon have the chance to join a virtual town hall and ask questions to Fairfax County representatives for the Providence District.

Dalia Palchik with the Board of Supervisors and Karl Frisch with the Fairfax County School Board announced that they will host the meeting at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday (May 9).

The meeting will be held on Facebook Live, according to the event page.

Palchik and Frisch are expected to lead a discussion surrounding topics brought up by community members in attendance.

Though there doesn’t seem to be a pre-set agenda, people can email to inquire about the meeting.

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A Fairfax County School Board member says that 14 trailers at McLean High School will soon get replaced with a modular unit to help address overcrowding issues.

Elaine Tholen, the school board member who represents the Dranesville District, said in her newsletter yesterday that the school board is looking to add a 12-classroom unit and bathrooms outside the school building. Tholen called the plan “an effort to alleviate some of the overcrowding issues.”

School officials’ consideration of a boundary change for the school, which is at 118% capacity, with nearby Langley High School has stalled as the public school system grapples with changes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tholen reiterated in her newsletter that plans to implement the proposed boundary change this fall will no longer happen.

“As soon as we can figure out the best way to have public meetings to move forward on the boundary scoping process, those meetings will continue,” she said.

Now, the modular idea will be on the consent agenda for the school board’s upcoming meeting on May 7, Tholen said. Following the meeting, families in the McLean and Langley pyramids can expect a note, she added.

“We will continue to analyze development numbers and enrollment figures for McLean High School to monitor the need for an addition to the school,” Tholen said.

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Updated 4/29/2020 — This story originally said the school board would discuss the proposal. The item was instead on the school board’s list of new items. 

A proposal that would add a modular to mitigate overcrowding at McLean High School heads to the Fairfax County School Board tomorrow (Thursday).

School officials have been trying to find a way to lessen crowding issues at the high school, which has resorted to more than a dozen trailers to accommodate classes.

The draft CIP says that McLean High School is currently at 118% capacity, which are projected to increase in the 2024-2025 school year and could rise even more if the school sees an employment spike due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, the school board voted to expand the study of a possible boundary change for McLean and Langley high schools to include the two feeder middle schools.

Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District on the school board, has said that the original goal to implement the boundary change by the 2020-2021 school year won’t happen.

Tholen told families during a digital town hall last week that the modular idea would be a short-term solution “to make that situation much better.”

Now, the school board will consider whether or not to jumpstart the project by awarding a contract to a bidder, but the board won’t vote on the matter tomorrow.

“Bids were received on March 25, 2020,” according to the agenda. “The bid tabulation and recommendation for award will be furnished prior to the May 7, 2020, School Board meeting.”

The proposed modular addition will be paid for by the 2017 bond referendum, according to the school board.

In addition to the high school modular idea, the school board is scheduled to hear an update on the distance learning plan and the superintendent’s recommended changes to fiscal year 2021 budget.

The meeting is set to start at 10 a.m.

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Fairfax County school board members expressed major dismay over the botched rollout of the school system’s first week of distance learning, including security issues and technical problems with Blackboard’s system.

At an online meeting today (Thursday), school officials acknowledged the school’s leadership failed to ensure adequate security measures were in place when students and teachers logged on to online sessions.

Teacher-led distance learning was canceled this week due to technical issues the school system is working to resolve.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board today that the issues have been two-fold: capacity and load issues on Blackboard’s end and failures to implement and monitor security protocol by FCPS.

Security Issues

Sloan Presidio, the school system’s assistant superintendent for instructional services, described security issues as a “leadership failure.”

“We failed to properly train the staff,” Presidio said, adding that the school’s leadership did not communicate how teachers should properly set up online sessions and make sure security settings were in place.

In some cases, students were able to set up and run unmonitored chat sessions that were not seen by moderators. Some students were able to log on with fake names and upload inappropriate photos.

“We absolutely share the concern and the dismay at some of the behavior that was reported,” Tim Tomlinson, Blackboard’s chief product officer, said. “It’s unconscionable.”

Although instructors were given guidance on how to maintain security and set up online sessions, school officials said the information was not properly disseminated. Once school officials were made aware of security issues, additional guidance on security was provided.

School board member Megan McLaughlin said she was “shocked” the 10th largest school system in the country did not conduct load testing prior to the launch of the system.

“There is no getting around it,” McLaughlin said.

Blackboard Problems 

In addition to security challenges, the system experience log-in issues on the first day of learning, following by problems associated with Blackboard’s servers. The Reston-based company is working on upgrades to the system to resolve ongoing issues.

Tomlinson said that Blackboard “had no indication that these problems would occur” and shared a statement from the company apologizing for the disruption.

“We are working with FCPS to require students to log in to the FCPS 24-7 site and authenticate their identity before they are permitted to join a virtual classroom,” according to the Blackboard statement.

Tomlinson also noted that FCPS chose not to update its software for three years to the latest system. Seven updates were publicly available but not applied, he said.

But Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the school system’s department of information technology, noted that the school system was never told those upgrades were required for performance purposes, especially prior to the launch of distance learning. She also added that the system was due for a planned upgrade this June.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hit locally, the school system had plans in place to replace Blackboard Learn, a virtual learning environment, with Schoology, another distance learning tool operated by PowerSchool Unified Classroom, over the next two years.

The school system hopes to pilot the system in the fall.

School Board Responds   

School board members also questioned why distance learning proceeded if there was indication there were technical problems prior the launch. Several of the members urged FCPS to consider learning alternatives, like resources from Google.

“If Blackboard can’t handle this, lets try Google” Laura Jane Cohen, who represents the Springfield District. “Everyone has worked too hard to make this happen.”

According to the presentation, less than half of the teachers have Google Classroom sites, which could be used as a learning supplement.

“There would be significant teacher training required and additional workload on teachers to create these sites,” the presentation said. “Additionally, Google Classroom is not linked to the student information system and teachers would have to manually create courses.”

The presentation notes that students and teachers have equal permissions on Google Meet, which could let students override teacher content, and that guest access is allowed.

“Additionally, Google engineers expressed concern about handling the volume of FCPS users,” the presentation said.

Other school board members said a two-hour delay in instructor-led learning on Wednesday was not communicated effectively to the school community.

Brabrand apologized for not making the “right call” when he called for the two-hour delay.

“We could have communicated it better,” Brabrand said, adding that his mistake “caused undue confusion for our teachers and our principals.”

Next Steps 

Blackboard is currently working on software patches this week to address the capacity issues behind the login difficulties, Luftglass said.

On April 14, Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, a real-time video conferencing tool, were linked with a new feature that will only allow students enrolled in a class to join the class session and ban guest access, school officials said. Additionally, a back-up plan is being developed using Collaborate Ultra, they said.

FCPS aims to resume its synchronous learning on April 20.

Catherine Douglas Moran contributed reporting

Image via FCPS

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As the coronavirus pandemic creates turmoil for the fiscal year 2021 budget considerations, Fairfax County Public Schools aims to mirror Fairfax County’s budget revision approach.

The Fairfax County School Board tackled changes to the FCPS budget during its meeting yesterday.

Marty Smith, the chief operating officer for FCPS, shared in a presentation that Superintendent Scott Brabrand is looking to mirror the reduction strategy being used for the county’s budget.

The presentation also noted that FCPS aims to maintain its existing staff, but will defer compensation increases to fiscal year 2022. Amendments and new strategic investments will also be pushed.

Extended Pay For Some Substitute Teachers

The school board also unanimously approved a motion that continues pay for part-time, temporary, hourly employees through April 24.

The motion applies to long-term substitute and does not include short-term substitute teachers.

The school board will reconsider pay for those employees when the superintendent provides more information to the board for the meeting on April 16.

At that upcoming meeting, the board will decide pay for the remainder of the school year.

“To Be Determined”

While FCPS is expecting several one time savings, many of the costs associated with the pandemic are still unknown.

So far, all of the financial amounts for categories, like social emotional supports and a COVID-19 second wave contingency plan, listed in FCPS’s “Post COVID-19 Response Plan” are “TBD,” according to the presentation.

Financial impacts related to unemployment and paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Act are also unknown at this time.

FCPS may also face another, yet-to-be-determined impact: more students.

Brabrand said during the meeting that FCPS must prepare for a possible influx of students.

“It’s a job creation area and we have families in private school who may be financially impacted,” he said.

Image via FCPS/YouTube

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Superintendent Scott Brabrand said during a Facebook Live event today (Friday) that possible Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) budget changes will be shared next week.

Brabrand said that the economic uncertainty sparked by COVID-19 has had a widespread impact on budgets, including Fairfax County.

Currently, Fairfax County staff are revising the proposed budget, which was developed before the coronavirus pandemic hit the area, to address expected revenue losses and help small businesses. The new budget proposal is expected to be ready by next week.

Brabrand said that a new economic forecast is expected from Gov. Ralph Northam later next week.

The Fairfax County School Board will host a virtual meeting next Thursday (April 9) at 10 a.m., Brabrand said. At that meeting, he said he plans to share his initial thoughts on how the budget may need to be adjusted.

Brabrand said that FCPS is dedicated to providing quality education during the “tight budget times that have now confronted us,” adding that FCPS has weathered challenging financial times before.

Image via Fairfax County Public Schools/Facebook

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Editor’s note: Starting March 24, Tysons Reporter will have “Morning Notes” every weekday instead of twice a week to accommodate more news.

Here are the latest stories about the Tysons area that the Tysons Reporter team has been reading:

Grab-and-Go Meal Sites Have Curbside Service — “FCPS staff will deliver meals to children and adults while they wait in their cars in the kiss and ride line. Walk-ups are still welcome at all sites.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Hilton to Furlough Employees — “Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. will furlough hundreds — if not thousands — of employees at its McLean headquarters as part of ongoing cost cutting measures related to the novel coronavirus.” [Washington Business Journal]

Local Student Makes Medical Masks — “When Beech Tree mom Van Nguyen heard about the shortage of medical face masks, she put her sewing skills into action. Her original goal was to make 20 face masks, but after posting about her project on social media, she received a plea from local medical professionals to make more. Beech Tree fifth grader Caroline got wind of Nguyen’s project and decided to put her own sewing skills to the test.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Falls Church City Employee Has Coronavirus — “Officials were notified this week of the positive test — the first of a City employee and third reported in the City itself — by the Fairfax County Health Department who determined there was not a public health reason to report the details of the case to the public… Falls Church officials told the News-Press the employee is not a City resident.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Former Vienna Town Councilmember Dies — “George Lovelace, a U.S. Army veteran and longtime Vienna Town Council member who also served one year as a state delegate, died March 22 at age 83.” [Inside NoVa]

Dry Cleaners Now Open in The Boro — The Boro Cleaners is now open at 8303 B Greensboro Drive. [The Boro/Twitter]

Falls Church Farmers Market is Back — “The farmers market in the City of Falls Church will reopen this weekend, though it will look a little different, after a one-week hiatus out of concern over the potential spread of the coronavirus.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Special School Board Meeting Today — “The Fairfax County School Board will hold a Special Meeting at 11 a.m. on Friday, March 27. All Board members will participate electronically due to the COVID-19 emergency.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]

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Before the coronavirus prompted Fairfax County Public Schools to close, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said a proposed boundary change for McLean high schools won’t impact students later this year.

The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously at the meeting on March 9 to expand their study of a possible boundary change for McLean and Langley high schools to include the two feeder middle schools — Cooper and Longfellow.

The draft CIP says that McLean High School is currently at 118% capacity, with projections showing the population increasing to 122% capacity in the 2024-2025 school year.

The boundary change would shift students from McLean High School to nearby Langley High School, which has a current capacity of 83%.

Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District on the school board, said that community input at meetings in December pushed for middle schools to be included in the proposal.

Tholen added that Cooper Middle School is set to get renovated. “That doesn’t need to slow this process,” she said.

Originally, boundary scope meetings were expected to continue into the spring with the goal of voting and having a decision so that the change could impact the 2020-2021 school year.

But Tholen and Brabrand said that the 2020-2021 goal is too soon, especially since high school students have already signed up for their fall classes.

Brabrand said that having the boundary change in effect by the 2021-2022 school year would be more likely.

It is unclear if the coronavirus pandemic will delay that timeline.

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Concerns about a proposed boundary change impacting high students in McLean dominated the public hearing last night on the Capital Improvement Program for Fairfax County Public Schools.

The draft CIP says that McLean High School is currently at 118% capacity, with projections showing the population increasing to 122% capacity in the 2024-2025 school year.

“For years, we have cobbled together a bandaid patchwork of solutions that were never meant to be permanent,” Kimberly Adams, from the Fairfax Education Association, told the school board about the trailers at McLean High School.

Adams said that the school board needs to ask for more funding to pay for additional improvements that will add more school space.

One idea that county officials are pursuing would shift students from McLean High School to nearby Langley High School, which has a current capacity of 83%.

Meetings in the fall solicited community input on the proposed boundary change that could impact the schools for this upcoming 2020-2021 school year.

More than a dozen parents, students and locals urged the school board to renovate McLean High School, add a modular brick-and-mortar addition, add IB classes at Langley High School or allow McLean families the option to enroll their kids at Langley High School.

Two McLean high school students, who spoke together, said that they don’t support the boundary change and would prefer to see a modular instead.

Jennifer Colman, a McLean High School parent, told the school board that the CIP has “good options” for the school, but that the boundary change is not one of them.

“Take the boundary change off the table,” Colman said.

And if a boundary change does happen, several parents, like John Callanan, urged that the change happens for the lower grades, like with students in elementary school, rather than at the high school level and that the boundary change not split up families.

“If we must consider boundary changes do it from elementary to middle to high school,” Callanan said. “Do not begin at the end.”

All of the testimony wasn’t about McLean High School overcrowding — several students urged for support of solar polar legislation and building schools that are equipped with solar and geothermal systems so that they can be net-zero energy.

Some parents urged for the school board to address overcrowding at Shrevewood and Kent Garden elementary schools. Other people said that the schools need to have more support for twice-exceptional autistic students.

Image via FCPS/YouTube

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