Fairfax Co. parent group unsure if schools will commit to latest reopening plan

fcps reopneing timeline
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand revealed his reopening timeline for the school system at the school board’s meeting Thursday night. (Courtesy: Fairfax County Public Schools)

The proposed reopening plan for Fairfax County schools in Virginia has been released, but it’s not sitting well with parents who believe a return to in-person classes should be an option for families who want it.

Dr. Scott Brabrand, superintendent of the state’s largest school system, unveiled his plan at the county school board’s meeting last week. According to the plan, students would begin coming back to class on Feb. 16, with the goal of having 100,000 students across multiple grade levels in class by March 9.

Brabrand said at the meeting that 90% of county staff had registered to receive their COVID-19 vaccine.

By that timeline, Fairfax schools will have gone just shy of one year without a full week of in-person classes, which one group of parents believes is overdue.

Open Fairfax County Public Schools consists of nearly 2,000 parents that came together on social media sites like Facebook and later Twitter starting in June, according to Christy Hudson, a founding member and mother of three children who lives in Springfield.

Hudson said the group’s formation was in response to last summer’s survey put out by Fairfax County Public Schools that polled families and staff about how they feel about complete virtual instruction or hybrid returns to class for the 2020-21 school year in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Back then, families favored the hybrid return by a 59-41 margin, while teachers were more split.

But Hudson said given how past reopening plans have been handled, she is not confident in FCPS’ ability to follow-through with this new plan either.

“This is one of many proposed timelines that have been put forth, which is part of the issue that OpenFCPS has with our school board,” Hudson told WTOP.

“They have, many times publicly, published a return to school schedule, and many times pulled the rug right out from underneath of us.”

Reopening proposals have been delayed due to concerning virus data since the summer.

In late September, the school system revealed its plan to return students with special needs, English language learners and those focused on career and technical education by October, and FCPS followed through.

However, a proposal to bring back pre-K, kindergarten and other special student populations by mid-November was aborted the day before those students were set to be welcomed back.

The county said it intended to have those students return on Nov. 30, but that plan was called off as well, and then students taking career training courses went back to virtual learning soon after.

Brabrand revealed a tentative reopening plan in mid-December, but a week before it was set to take effect, he reversed course and said, “We’re taking a pause.”

The delay in reopening has affected enrollment at Fairfax County schools.

A Membership Trend Report presented at the school board’s Nov. 4 meeting revealed that nearly 9,000 students had withdrawn from the school system, primarily at the elementary level.

Hudson was one of those parents who took her child out of the school system. Her decision to withdraw her seventh grader and enroll her at a private Catholic school “is a direct result of FCPS remaining closed.”

She also has a senior and a freshman at West Springfield High School. The only time her freshman son had been to the school was for picture day. And her oldest son has an individualized education plan that doesn’t translate well to online lessons.

“He’s got some special needs that are definitely not being met in the virtual setting. And frankly, it’s just not working for him at all,” Hudson said.

Another point of frustration for Hudson has been the county’s teachers’ unions and how they seem to have the ear of the Brabrand and the school board members.

Members of Fairfax’s teachers unions “speak at almost every public forum that the board has, and yet, we cannot get parent slots,” Hudson said.

At last week’s meeting, one union president, Fairfax Education Association’s Kimberly Adams, said that “concerns also remain that students will not be vaccinated before they return to school,” and she advocated for maintaining the school system’s hybrid model. In a statement the following day, FEA asked Brabrand to delay the reopening plan by two weeks to March 2.

There is currently no approved COVID-19 vaccine for those younger than 16, according to the Mayo Clinic. Vaccine trials for those as young as 12 have started recently.

Adams told WTOP that the FEA is not asking for children to be vaccinated before it supports a reopening plan, but rather “that everyone else who chooses to remain virtual still can have that option until their student is eligible to be vaccinated.”

“We believe there’s a lot of families who believe that their students should stay safe at home until they are vaccinated,” Adams said. “The fact that we will open for in-person instruction, it may not be for all at the beginning of next school year. It will be for anyone who desires that.”

In Hudson’s view, the influence of the unions has kept teachers who want to return to the classroom away from their students.

Part of it are the “nonsensical” health metrics the union wants to be satisfied, per Hudson. Those include 14 days of zero community spread of COVID-19.

Around Thanksgiving, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told Business Insider that schools should reopen and that the virus’ ability to spread among children wasn’t as bad as suspected.

Adams said that FEA is supportive of following the metrics that Fairfax County schools rely on, which say as long as the school system is above 200 cases per 100,000, and greater than 10%, PCR positivity tests, they are in a dangerous place to return students to schools. Adams said those metrics are in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own guidance on reopening schools.

As of Sunday, there are 640 cases per 100,000 and over 12% positivity for PCR tests in Fairfax.

In the FEA’s letter to the school board, the union said that if data doesn’t improve by its suggested start date of March 2, it doesn’t believe it’s safe for students to have in-person learning.

Hudson also said that the unions only represent a small number of teachers.

FEA, for example, represents “more than 4,000 teachers and education support professionals in Fairfax County,” according to its Facebook page. Another union, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, also represents around 4,000 employees.

Fairfax County schools employ almost 25,000 full-time employees. Virginia is a right-to-work state and doesn’t mandate that employees join labor unions upon being hired.

Adams told WTOP that the perception of unions having a stronger voice than parents “is not accurate” and that the FEA or the FCFT “have not had a proportionate voice” to the decisions made by Brabrand and the school board. She also said the educators FEA represents want to get back in schools “more than anything.”

Pressure on returning to schools has also come from state lawmakers.

State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said that “continued school closures are not acceptable,” and that if school systems wish to receive state funding, “You have to provide the product that the taxpayers are paying for, and more importantly, that the students deserve,” he told FOX5 DC last week.

To that, Adams said, “The senator is one of just a few who believe that it’s necessary to rip funding away from districts who can’t bring all their students back in person.”

Fairfax County’s school board will go over the plan in greater detail during its meeting on Feb. 2.

More Coronavirus News

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Matthew Delaney

Matt Delaney is a digital web writer/editor who joined WTOP in 2020.

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