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Thursday, April 8, 2021

FCPS: School should be back to normal next fall

Weyanoke Elementary School students end the day with an active learning exercise. [FCPS]
For the start of the 2021-22 school year, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he is planning for “as near normal a fall as possible.” 

During a virtual town hall on April 7, Brabrand offered more details on expanding in-school learning, graduation, school lunch, and related issues. 

Four days a week – The decision by school teams on who to invite for four days of in-person learning is based on data on which students are struggling the most academically, socially, and emotionally, according to the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and on the physical capacity at each school, said Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent for special services.

Students in that group began returning to the classroom this week.  Among that group are special education, general education students, and English language learners with academic, social, or emotional needs. 

Starting April 20, students already in class two days a week will be invited to attend four days a week. Schools will begin reaching out to those families next week. 

Mondays will continue to be reserved for asynchronous learning and teacher planning time. Families who chose virtual learning must remain with that mode for the rest of the year. 

When a caller asked why FCPS is not bringing everyone back four days a week, Brabrand cited the logistics problem, especially as SOL, IB, and AP testing gets underway in May. 

Three feet – FCPS is expanding in-person learning because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with new guidelines allowing three feet of social distancing – reduced from six feet – in elementary schools. 

As of April 7, Brabrand said, community transmission of COVID has decreased from “high” to “substantial,” which means middle and high schools can also implement three feet of social distancing. 

The transmission rate of COVID within schools has been “extremely low” – two-tenths of a percentage point – since January, Brabrand noted.

Fall 2021 – Brabrand hopes all students will be able to be back in class next fall, even if the three-foot social distancing rule is still in place. “We believe we are going to be able to make it work.” 

He is planning limited virtual learning next year. I don’t believe a third year of virtual learning is in the best interest of children,” he said. “I realize many students are able to be successful in a virtual environment. However, that is not the optimal environment for our students.”

Virtual learning – Younger kids, especially, need to be in school to learn social skills and develop relationships, added Dr.  Michael Martin, a pediatrician based in Vienna and president of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Martin has seen a huge increase in problems among families due to distance learning. 

Related story: Fairfax County schools expand in-person learning

A survey of pediatricians showed 90 to 95 percent are seeing a lot more anxiety and depression among children during the pandemic, he said. Among his patients, about one or two kids are admitted to a hospital for mental health purposes every week; before the pandemic, it was one such case every six months.  

Seniors – In-person graduation ceremonies for all high schools will be scheduled this year, although there will be capacity limits.  

Now that Virginia has expanded the limits for crowd sizes, proms and all-night grad parties could be scheduled, too. “We will have to be creative and do things differently,” Brabrand said. That means some events likely will be outdoors. More guidelines will be announced by principals.

Under an executive order from the governor that took effect April 1, the maximum capacity for public and private gatherings has been expanded to 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.

Lunch – Boyd noted that school lunch is one of the biggest challenges in bringing more students back. To accommodate the CDC’s guidelines for six feet of distance when students aren’t wearing masks, schools have to be creative in scheduling lunchtime. Some schools are planning to have students eat outdoors or are converting hallways into lunch spaces. 

When students are finished eating, Boyd said, they’re urged to put their masks back on so they can have social time with their peers. 

Masks still required – According to Martin, wearing a mask is the single most important thing a person can do to prevent the spread of COVID. When two people are even only a foot apart and they both wear a mask, the chance of spreading COVID is extremely low. 

When COVID has spread in school settings, it happened when people stop following the rules, Martin said, especially when students play sports without masks. 

Even teachers who have been vaccinated need to keep wearing masks, Brabrand said. “We have to have a culture of mask-wearing in schools; we have to model what we expect of children.” 

Summer school – Brabrand promised “10 times the normal summer program” to make up for the loss of learning among students who struggled during the school year. 

Summer programs include credit recovery, catchup sessions, and enrichment courses. Some courses will have fees but will be free for students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. 

COVID tests – Brabrand hopes some of Fairfax County’s federal stimulus funds can be used for in-school COVID testing. FCPS is planning to partner with the Virginia Health Department on a diagnostic testing pilot in schools with quick results for students and staff with symptoms. 

Another in-school pilot program would provide testing for asymptomatic staff and students. These proposals will be presented to the school board April 20. 

Other vaccinations – Martin urges parents to make sure their children get their regular vaccinations. During the pandemic, people have avoided doctors’ offices, with the result that there’s been a 20 to 30 percent decline in vaccination rates. 

Don’t wait until August, he warns, when it might be hard to get an appointment. 

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