This story is part of “Parenting in a Pandemic,” WTOP’s continuing coverage of how parents are dealing with childcare, schooling and more through the coronavirus pandemic.
Fairfax County school officials are providing parents with specific information on how class schedules, technology and special education will operate as the district heads for an unprecedented start to the school year with classes held entirely online.
In a letter to parents and caregivers Tuesday, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Virginia’s largest school district opted to start the year with 100% virtual learning in the face of staffing shortages that would have curtailed schools’ ability to provide students with high-quality, in-person instruction.
“As educators, there is nothing we want more than to have all students back in school,” Brabrand wrote. “This school year will be a challenge for us all, but we are doing everything possible to ensure a high-quality education through virtual learning to start the year.”
With a goal of providing “a sense of normalcy” for students learning remotely, Brabrand shared plans for virtual school bells that will more closely align Fairfax’s online learning with the start and end times used before the pandemic.
The “virtual school day” for public high schools and secondary schools will last from 8:10 a.m. to 2:55 p.m. For middle schools, classes will be held between 7:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Elementary schools will vary, with individual schools expected to release their specific start and end times this week.
Middle and high schools will follow A/B block schedules, with classes lasting 80 minutes with 15-minute screen breaks between them. Sample schedules are available on the FCPS website.
Virtual classes will be held five days per week, with Tuesday through Friday being dedicated to live, face-to-face instruction and Mondays reserved for independent learning activities.
Elementary days will include group instruction, and what the district calls “significant investment in new digital resources” for a more personalized approach to math and language arts.
During its attempt in the spring to move classes online, the school system faced criticism over a series of tech glitches that led to the resignation of the school systems’ information technology chief. The school system voted July 21 to have its 188,000 students learn remotely this fall after a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases throughout Virginia.
For the start of fall classes, the school system said it plans to purchase additional technology to aid students with special needs on adapted curriculum, including auditory and visual impairments.
Throughout August, special education managers will work with parents to amend individual education plans.
“Our instructional assistants will be supporting students in virtual classrooms and in breakout rooms, creating materials, prompting parents when needed during lessons and developing virtual activities under the guidance of the teacher,” Brabrand said, adding special education staff will teach individually or in small groups “as appropriate for students’ goals and scheduling.”
FCPS is seeking to provide all students with laptops for online learning. Parents who have not already received one will be sent information on pickup, which the district says can be done with minimal contact and without having to enter an FCPS building.
Technical support will be available for families and students through a virtual help desk. FCPS said it is developing methods for students to manage their Blackboard Collaborate and Google Meet class links via Google Calendar.
Brabrand also said the school district will continue its grab-and-go meal program through the remainder of the summer into the new school year. Food service teams have provided more than 2 million such meals to Fairfax families since the early stages of the pandemic, and will announce updated food distribution information in the near future.
After concerns raised over access to ACT and SAT availability, testing at several FCPS high schools set for Aug. 29 will continue as scheduled, Brabrand said.
FCPS will work with the College Board to allow high school seniors the opportunity for SAT testing at their own schools on Sept. 23. Registration information will be made available later this month.
Fairfax County schools will return to classes on Sept. 8 — with the two-week delay giving teachers a chance to accommodate themselves with a virtual learning environment, and school teams an opportunity to contact families and ensure students are well-acquainted with accessing online classes.
Earlier in July, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticized Fairfax County education officials’ plan for virtual classes in the fall as a “failure” for students and taxpayers. Rebuking her comments, Brabrand said “the health and safety of our staff, our students and our community must come before politics.”
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