A surge in COVID-19 cases in Fairfax County forced Fairfax County Public Schools to delay its planned return of in-person instruction for an additional 6,800 students on Monday, Nov. 16. "The current health metrics for COVID-19 cases in our community now exceed the threshold to expand our in-person learning," wrote Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott S. Brabrand. The Virginia Department of Health reported the total number of new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 during the past 14 days as 211.2.
Earlier that day, at an 11 a.m. news conference, Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly M. B. Adams, joined by presidents from the surrounding districts of Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William, urged Governor Northam to return to phases two or one and return to virtual learning. "The safest option is to remain virtual for our schools until cases remain in a downward trend… Yesterday Fairfax was at 191 cases per 100,000. Today we are at 211 per 100,000… It is unacceptable for our districts to continue to disregard scientists and medical experts,” she said.
Brabrand wrote they would pause and delay expanding in-person instruction to Group 5, Early Head Start, pre-K, kindergarten and some special education service students and any new pilot programs and classes that had been scheduled. According to Brabrand, the school system made this decision as soon as the metrics were made available, and they were communicating it immediately as promised. "We always anticipated the need to potentially adjust our return to school plans as necessary during this ongoing pandemic…We are monitoring health metrics daily, but Group 5 will remain virtual until at least Nov. 30. We will communicate additional updates closer to that time," he wrote. For students in Group 5, Nov. 17 would have been their first day back to in-school instruction since FCPS canceled school eight months earlier on Friday, March 13.
BRABRAND WROTE that students and staff who had been attending in-person classes (Groups 1-4) and the existing pilots, would continue to do so. CDC Guidelines allowed the school division to keep small cohorts of students in schools. "If metrics change that impact in-person instruction for Groups 1-4, we will update you as soon as that information becomes available," he said.
Tina Williams, president of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said, "This is a good step in the right direction and will help limit COVID-19 exposure in our schools and community. However, there are still staff and students in school buildings and COVID-19 is on the rise in Fairfax County. We are shocked that FCPS wants to bring additional groups of students back on Nov. 30, directly following the Thanksgiving holiday. Experts have said this period will be a hotbed for new cases because of expected small group gatherings. We need real metrics from FCPS. We urge FCPS to transition all students and staff to virtual learning immediately until there is controlled community spread of COVID-19 and the district fully adopts our 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening.”
Two school days before pushing the pause button to bring the additional children back to in-person instruction, on Thursday evening, Nov. 12. the Fairfax County School Board received updates by Brabrand and County staff regarding the division's health and operational metrics. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, all twelve School Board Members and thirty staff persons participated electronically, not in-person.
"Since the last presentation to the Board in October, we've been able to successfully return students to school, cohorts 2, 3 and 4, to two days a week of in-person learning," Brabrand said. That represented approximately 8,340 children. Brabrand said health and staffing metrics supported the planned return of Group 5, totaling another 6,800 students on Nov. 17. Group 1, select specialized career prep classes, returned on Oct. 5. A spokesperson for FCPS later said, "We have had roughly 600 teachers working in our first four cohorts."
Brabrand said FCPS projected a return for Group 6, approximately 13,500 students in grades 1 and 2, and some additional students with disabilities, on Dec. 8. Later during the discussion, Brabrand said there had been COVID outbreaks at two schools, "Justice and Woodson (high schools)." The Virginia Department of Health defined an outbreak as "the identification of two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of illness that are epidemiologically linked by person, place, and time."
Dr. Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent, Department of Special Services, provided an overview of FCPS's revised recommended metrics for safe in-person learning. According to Boyd, the division planned to use a different model than risk in the community since "risk in schools" might not equate to "risk in the community."
Boyd said when deciding to open, close, or reopen schools due to COVID, FCPS planned to use the CDC's two "core indicators," the measures of community burden and the implementation of mitigation strategies. Community burden was defined as the number of new COVID cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days, and the percentage of RT-PCR tests that are positive during the last 14 days.
THE IMPLEMENTATION of mitigation strategies meant measuring the school's ability to adhere to masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and contract tracing with Fairfax County Health Department. Boyd stressed vigilance to mitigation strategies within schools would reduce COVID's introduction and transmission.
"The most important piece of our assessment of our mitigation measures, is the implementation of our audit teams. We will be implementing audit teams that will be going and conducting weekly walkthroughs of our schools to ensure the implementation fidelity of that third CDC indicator, which has been recommended by the CDC and our Health Department is one of the most powerful pieces to keeping students and staff safe throughout our pandemic," she said.
Out of an abundance of caution, FCPS would ground in-person instruction decisions for Groups 1-6 on community transmission until it fully implemented its audit process for mitigation measures.
Boyd said one of the lessons learned during the initial return to school pilots, was the need to enhance COVID communications and processes so stakeholders were informed promptly, within one school day, regarding COVID cases occurring in their child's school or workplace. "They (those who exhibit symptoms) will be required to submit a Return to School Form or Return to Work Form that is endorsed by their physician, for them to return to work and school," she said. If there were a positive case, the Health Department would implement contact tracing, and staff/ families notified.
Interim assistant superintendent, Department of Human Resources, Sean McDonald, shared updates on teacher and classroom instructional support staff intent. The numbers indicated fewer employees submitted paperwork to resign, retire, or take a leave of absence than those who intended to do so. According to McDonald, two-thirds of all ADA accommodation requests had been resolved. The others were to be addressed by the employee's anticipated return date relative to their student group.
McDonald said FCPS had sufficient staff to support Group 5 and shifted focus to Group 6. They were matching long-term substitutes in the classroom and hiring classroom monitors to support in-person instruction in situations where a teacher's ADA accommodation necessitated a virtual teaching assignment. McDonald added that teachers who submitted a request to resign by the Nov. 11 deadline would be released from their position "without prejudice."
The concurrent instructional model proved best after the division looked at all learning models. Sloan Presidio, assistant superintendent, Instructional Services Department, said, "This means that teachers are going to be working with students who are learning at school and students who are learning at home... We're not expecting that every minute of a class is going to be synchronous or that teachers are going to be able to provide the same amount of interaction with their in-person students than their online students, as we begin to implement this model."
ONE OF THE BIGGEST STRENGTHS of the pilot concurrent program, according to Principal Mary Duffy, Bush Hill Elementary School in Alexandria, was the availability of various technology tools- cameras, microphones, amplification equipment, monitors, projectors, and more. However, staffing and teacher workload concerns proved to be significant challenges. "They (teachers) have worked tirelessly to make this happen for our students. Duffy mentioned a second-grade teacher at her school, Ambler Goddin, who was logging 70-hour work weeks since the pilot began in October.
Tammy Derenak Kaufax, Fairfax County School Board Member representing the Lee District said to the teachers present, "For those of you who are working 70 hours a week, and it is unsustainable, do you see an end in sight...Is this something that is going to continue in this concurrent model?" Goddin said that it had definitely been “pretty crazy” and while she was not going to let her students fail, she did not see an end to hours. “We're thrown back in the deep end...every time we start to get our feet under us and that's kind of the nature of COVID," she said.
Visit https://www.fcps.edu/return-school/person-instruction-update-small-groups to view a video of concurrent instruction in action. FCPS will hold a Return to School Town Hall Thursday, Nov. 19, from, 6-7 p.m. Questions can be submitted in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org or call in during the Town Hall at 1-800-231-6359.