Fairfax County Pivots Back to Virtual Learning

Fairfax County Pivots Back to Virtual Learning

Superintendent sought Board consensus.

Fairfax County School Board.

Fairfax County School Board. File photo courtesy FCPS

Members of the Fairfax County School Board reached a consensus during its July 21 Work Session and accepted Superintendent Scott Brabrand's recommendation to begin the 2020-21 school year 100 percent virtually. The surprise item on the Board's agenda came six days after the deadline passed for students, teachers and school-based technology specialists (SBTS) to respond to two Instruction Options for the 2020-21 school year, in-person or online for the academic school year.

Brabrand said, "The bottom line is this. We must place the health and safety of our teachers, our students and our families first. The COVID-19 pandemic looks much different than it did even three weeks ago. Then, the science told us we could offer in-person instruction safely if we took the right precautions."

BRABRAND shared the situational analysis that led him to the recommendation starting with health conditions, the impact of those conditions on operations, technology readiness, and more. "There is a record number of new (COVID-19) cases in the country and the mortality rate is rising. Governor Northam stated last week that he would be prepared to go back to Phase Two if needed. Last night, multiple health officials and Maryland's most populous jurisdictions asked the state to reconsider its in-person activities. We have also seen today that the U.S. Surgeon General has said that transmission rates must be lowered before schools can reopen. Just hours ago, the CDC reported data that the actual number of coronavirus infections is probably 10 times higher than the reported cases in Fairfax County. We have seen some declines… But more recently, the decrease has stopped. Our numbers have remained steady or sometimes have increased each day." Brabrand said several regional school divisions recently announced virtual starts to their school year due to those concerns, including Arlington and Manassas schools. Brabrand added that one-third of FCPS employees live outside Fairfax County, with the number for teachers at 37 percent and principals, assistant principals and directors of activities at 40 percent. "We know that the coronavirus does not recognize boundaries, and we have thousands of employees who live in other jurisdictions but come in daily to Fairfax."

Another reason Brabrand said he sought the Board's consensus to open 100 percent virtually was that health conditions impacted operations. Data received the week before from the Enrollment Form Choice revealed 60 percent of students preferred in-person learning, yet only 48 percent of teachers signed that choice as their preference. Brabrand said substitute applications were down by a third compared to last year, and ADA accommodation requests for teachers with medical needs soared to 1522 in June. "Ten percent of the teaching workforces may not return in person…This number remains fluid and it’s expected to increase throughout the year." Brabrand said there were not enough teachers to meet in-person student needs.

AS FOR TECHNOLOGY READINESS, Brabrand assured the Board that when the students return in September, there will be "robust virtual instruction that will be the pride of this country." He underscored a new help desk for children, a project team, and directions in eight languages to use the new computers. "We have ways to make the links easier in Google and Blackboard Collaborate …We can share with the Board later about how we're going to teach teachers best instructional practices in virtual instruction." He said the division now had the latest updates for load capacity, noting that Blackboard Collaborate was now in the cloud, and there would not be security issues either as they fixed that.

Highlights of School Board Member Questions

Q: We've got a significant portion of our school staff population that has not yet been surveyed for their views on returning to work and are obviously impacted in a virtual environment. What considerations are being made for them, and when can we expect to plan for them? (Karl Frisch, Providence District Representative)

A: We're looking at ways that we can ensure that our employees can come to work safely and engage in social distancing… typically, because the current phase three that we're in. And so, we would certainly want those employees to come into work and work on the site. Those employees who could continue to telework can certainly continue to take advantage of our telework regulation. And then looking at ways that we could utilize that for different functions of the school system. We also know that with our lack of distribution. We've held back a portion of approximately 3000 laptops for our school-based support employees who can also engage in and support things and activities in the classroom. (Sean McDonald, interim assistant superintendent, Department of Human Resources)

Q: I need to know more about what we're going to do to make sure that we can have a robust education for our students, not the ones who are going to log on all the time, but the ones who are disconnected. (Rachna Sizemore Heizer, Member-at-Large)

A: I will work to provide that; I appreciate it and we are going to find ways to connect with those that have not been connected from the spring and to reconnect with them, and I'll be glad to bring updates to the Board on how that will be. (Superintendent Scott Brabrand)

Q: What are we going to do in partnership with the county to help our working families, so that they have a way to have their children be safe for those who have to return to their jobs, and do it in light of this decision? (Megan McLaughlin, Braddock District Representative)

A: We (will) continue to have conversations with SACC and our early childhood. I recognize that virtual may make the needs for childcare even greater… We're working on childcare with in-person, and when we pivot to in-person, we still want to offer our teachers and all of our school-based staff…the opportunity for the four-day in-person instruction. (Superintendent Scott Brabrand)