School Board pauses return to school

Jan. 5th board meeting sets updated timeline for in-person learning


Guest Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu provides updated information about COVID-19 pandemic to the superintendent and school board.

Akash Balenalli and Heran Essayas

Amid new concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fairfax County School Board voted to postpone the return-to-school date indefinitely.

During the Jan. 5 work session, Superintendent Scott Brabrand presented his return-to-school plan to the board, which featured mitigation practices, statistics used to determine the safety of returning and updates on the hiring of classroom monitors. Dissatisfied with the plan, numerous board members expressed their concerns about the increasing regional case numbers, a new coronavirus variant originally detected in the U.K. and reopening before teachers were vaccinated.

Believing that the plan was rushed and failed to consider these factors, the board passed a motion to pause the return-to-school plan and reconvene on Feb. 2 and designated an interim meeting two weeks after Jan. 5.

“Everything is paused,” Brabrand said during the work session. “And if I had updates about where we would be able to unpause, I would share them in two weeks…and then I would do a full presentation Feb. 2.”

All students across FCPS stopped receiving in-person instruction following winter break. Between Jan. 12 and Feb. 2, all students who opted for in-person learning were set to transition back to school; freshmen and seniors were originally planned to return on Jan. 26, and sophomores and juniors were slated to return on Feb. 2.

Some board members expressed concern that the plan was still not ready or timely. They also expressed dissatisfaction with mitigation assessments, which were largely done on empty buildings and used inexperienced personnel. Despite increasing COVID-19 cases in the community, FCPS had concluded that schools would be allowed to open as long as safety precautions were being followed in school buildings.

“I’m blown away that we’re watching this new [coronavirus] strain come, that we’re seeing our numbers go up…and we’re saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry, a couple of ex-coaches walked into a school that was empty, and that gives me the feeling that we can go ahead and push through with thousands and thousands of people in our buildings,’” Springfield school board representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

With the new postponement, the school board discussed no longer having different return-to-school dates for various grade levels. Since these students will not interact with each other, staggering the dates will unnecessarily extend the commencement of in-person education for secondary students.

“Part of the feedback tonight was to look at overlaying some of the return to school dates. We can let secondary and elementary come back at the same time,” Brabrand said. “That might let us start later but still be able to bring more of our kids back.”

The meeting also featured a discussion of a localized approach to returning, in which schools that struggle to safely practice COVID-19 mitigation would not delay the return of schools that are successful. School board members, including Mount Vernon district representative Karen Corbett Sanders, emphasized the inequity of the proposed plan, highlighting that students across FCPS should not be receiving a varied quality of education.

“We, as a school system, have worked for decades about fulfilling an FCPS promise that no matter where you live in Fairfax County, you benefit from the Fairfax County Public Schools’ promise and there will be consistency,” Corbett Sanders said. “What we are doing here, what you have proposed, is a shift from a one-Fairfax approach to a very localized approach to public education.”

Other school board members expressed differing opinions on this approach. While some said they believe that allowing some schools to return would create unequal educational opportunities across the county, others thought that waiting until all schools can successfully return would not be in the best interest of students.

“With 200 school buildings, we cannot possibly open up all 200 schools or keep all 200 closed while we finely tune and address staffing needs in a classroom-by-classroom, grade level-by-grade level challenge…We’ve got to be able to say that we believe it’s safe to open up our school division; we recognize that in 200 buildings, there’s going to be some challenges,” Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin said. “But we cannot keep children home, 180,000 kids, the opportunity to return because one school, one classroom, one grade level is having trouble.”

In addition, the board voted to officially request Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to include teachers with the first responders already part of vaccination phase 1b. When the meeting was held, the approximate 75,000 members of group 1a are receiving coronavirus vaccines and the list of 1b personnel has not been made public.

“We remain vigilant and we are working to develop a plan that will allow us to bring students and staff back to school buildings,” Brabrand said in a message to the community. “Pausing will provide additional time to work on our health and safety mitigation strategies, training and education, and also give us time to hire more classroom monitors.”