FCPS plans return to school

FCPS school board holds virtual work session to discuss transitioning back to in-person school


Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen and Superintendent Scott Brabrand discuss the reopening of schools on Nov. 12. They discussed the foreseeable challenges of returning back to school and how to mitigate them.

Heran Essayas, Editor-in-Chief

With the increase in local and national COVID-19 cases, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced at the Nov. 12 school board work session that FCPS will maintain the return to school date of Jan. 26 for group 8, which consists of middle and high school students.

On Nov. 11, Fairfax County had 186.2 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a percent positivity of 6.1%. These numbers have been steadily increasing since early October, causing the FCPS leadership team to dismiss their original proposal to move up the return date.

“I am a little worried about returning to school, and I do think [Covid-19] is going to spread because there’s no efficient way to regulate who and who doesn’t have [Covid-19],” senior Megan Williamson said.

The number of COVID-19 cases and the percent positivity of FCPS will determine if students can return to school. If both numbers remain below their designated threshold for seven consecutive days, scheduled groups may return to the school building. Once a group has resumed in-school instruction, the county must keep at least one of the two figures below the threshold for seven consecutive days for students and faculty to remain in school.

Given that the assigned groups are of drastically different sizes, the thresholds vary for different groups. The next group to return to school, which consists of kindergarteners and some students with disabilities, is able to return to school if the county has below 200 cases per 100,000 and has a positivity rate below 8%. FCPS has not provided a threshold for group 8 given that its return date is distant.

“We did not address groups 7 and 8 because we wanted to focus primarily on the groups that are coming in the most quickly,” said Michelle Boyd, Assistant Superintendent of the FCPS Department of Special Services.

In preparation for the return to school, FCPS began testing its concurrent learning model, in which students who attend class online will watch and participate in their classes live. Concurrent learning was designed so students who opted to continue distance learning will follow the same schedule and receive the same quality of learning as students who attend in-person classes.

“Teachers are going to be working with students who are at school and students who are learning at home,” said Sloan Presidio, Assistant Superintendent of the FCPS Instructional Services Department. “Of course we recognize that this is a new approach to teaching, which means that we have to do everything possible to support our teachers. We have to have reasonable expectations about what this is actually going to look like when we welcome more of our students back for in-person learning.”

Lake Braddock Secondary School and West Springfield High School were two of the pilot schools to test the model. 239 and 29 students, respectively, attended in-person classes with concurrent instruction to test its effectiveness. Before group 8 returns to school, FCPS plans to expand the number of pilot schools to test concurrent learning on a large-scale. Teachers from the pilot schools noted that it was difficult to communicate with the in-person and online students at the same time, so extensive planning is necessary to ensure that students across the county receive quality education.

“There were a number of considerations that really drove our decision-making in ultimately selecting an instruction model,” Presidio said. “We want to ensure that whether or not a student selected to be an in-person learner or to continue with full-time virtual learning, they would continue to have a similar amount of teacher-led instruction and teacher support.”

Though teachers did raise concerns about their increased workload, some agreed that concurrent instruction provided students with a better quality of learning and improved student engagement during class.

“It’s been easier to build connections with [my students], and it’s definitely been easier to assess their understanding of our learning, maintain their attention and focus and meet those needs on an individual basis,” said Ambler Goddin, a second grade teacher Bush Hill Elementary School, one of the pilot schools. “Personally, it’s been a lot easier teaching subjects like writing where virtually it’s hard to see their actual handwriting and punctuation.”

While FCPS plans for the return to school on Jan. 26, student activities will return sooner. Virginia High School League athletics and activities will begin using indoor and outdoor facilities on Nov. 16, and high school co-curricular activities will start using facilities on Nov. 30. On Jan. 11, high school extracurricular activities will be allowed to meet in-person.

“Right now it’s hard to say for sure which clubs and activities I’ll take part in once we’re in person,” senior Sofie Treibitz said. “I know that in-person activities and such are controversial, and in no way do I want to put anyone else at risk by attending, but if given the chance to go in person, I would love to in order to get at least a little normalcy for my senior year.”