During virtual learning debacle, Fairfax Co. superintendent vows tech infrastructure investment

Even as Fairfax County Public Schools struggle to stabilize its live online learning platform in the midst of the coronavirus crisis for the rest of the school year, school leaders realize September isn’t far away.

School Superintendent Scott Brabrand told school board members Thursday he has revised his proposed budget to include $2 million for technology infrastructure and support: “That $2 million is only a placeholder, a down payment,” Brabrand said, acknowledging online learning may still be needed in the 2020-2021 school year.

In a school board budget discussion, one day after Brabrand announced the county’s longtime public schools information technology chief was stepping down after several failed attempts at face-to-face virtual instruction on the Blackboard learning platform, board members told Brabrand they expected a far more robust technology infrastructure.

Brabrand didn’t disagree: “Absolutely. The experience, frankly, in the last two or three weeks has made it clear.”

School Board member Karl Frisch called the $2 million figure “a good down payment on turning the page that we’ve been stuck on for a while now.”

Frisch said he hoped Brabrand “will continue to consult with outside experts who bring a fresh perspective to these challenges, and that we can finally turn the page on this rigidity that has permeated the conversation over these problems, thus far.”

“Our teachers, our students, and our staff need flexibility,” Fritsch said. “This is an opportunity to give it to them.”

School Board Chair Karen Corbett Sanders said she will tell the Board of Supervisors she supports Brabrand’s investment in infrastructure, but “I don’t think $2 million is sufficient.”

She told Brabrand and board members: “I think that a robust technology plan is going to be more expensive than $2 million, so Dr. Brabrand, I hope you’ll be looking at the $20 million in stimulus funds as being some of that funding going towards our technology.”

“I put $2 million in, and I will be bringing you more,” Braband said to the board. He also said he hopes to have a proposed plan, and an idea of how to fund it, by May 14.

“We need to be thinking about a vision where we have a device for every child, so that no matter what happens as we come into next school year, we have the capability to do distance learning or some sort of hybrid. It is on our radar,” Brabrand assured the board.

Brabrand alluded to a willingness to spend stimulus funding, in considering ways to pay for the improved infrastructure, with the goal of making sure all students are able to access online learning.

“We are looking at one-time money. The Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia called me yesterday about additional dollars that the Governor may be getting, and what supports he can provide,” Brabrand said.

In working toward an updated vision for the county’s online learning, Braband said that is underway.

“I had my first Technology Advisory Council meeting [Wednesday], and I’m meeting with business executives and they are helping provide input into our plan,” he said. “So we are using outside help to get us a plan that’s going to make us stronger as we start the next school year.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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