The Fairfax County school board on Tuesday voted to approve the latest draft plan for a return to in-school learning presented by Superintendent Scott Brabrand.
Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school system and the nation’s 10th biggest school district, has been almost exclusively virtual since March.
The unanimous vote was a “consensus vote,” since the board was not scheduled to vote on the plan until Thursday. But Board member Megan McLaughlin, who ran the meeting, put the idea up for the earlier vote because it was clear that “there is strong support for this timeline,” and they wanted to get the information to the public as soon as possible.
The draft plan calls for students in Groups 1 through 4 (certain CTE and special education students) to start going into school buildings two days a week beginning Feb. 16.
Kindergartners and the remaining special education students would return Feb. 23. All students would be back in classrooms two days a week by March 16.
Students in intervention cohorts began returning to in-person learning last week.
Brabrand said the plan, and the decision-making plan that would lead to any re-closure of school buildings, had been developed in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education.
Though the board members were supportive, they had questions.
Board member Laura Jane Cohen told Brabrand shortly before the vote, “I can only vote for this plan if … you’re going to keep your foot on the pedal” as far as getting vaccines for teachers and staff.
She added that the administration would need to be more transparent than it had been about the COVID-19 numbers in the district: “I’m going to be driving you insane if that is not happening.”
Brabrand laughed and said, “I am familiar with that approach,” while also saying, “I understand. … You have my commitment.”
More than 7,000 teachers have had their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 25, said Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd earlier in the meeting, and about 90% of teachers in the district had signed up to be vaccinated.
Brabrand said that the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova Health “have promised they’re gonna see us through” as far as providing vaccines.
That said, Boyd said, vaccines were not set as a requirement by the health department to return to in-school learning. Brabrand agreed, saying, “Our planning never had the vaccination timeline in it.”
Board member Tamara Derenak Kaufax said that vaccine concerns were the main driver of “mixed reactions” from teachers groups she had heard from. “We have to understand why that is a consideration,” she said.
“I just really encourage whatever we can do” for teachers and staff, Cohen said. “I understand this train is moving … what can we do to give a comfort level to our staffers?”
Though Board member Elaine Tholen supported the plan, she said, “We will have to remain flexible,” and use virus data and reports from school staff to assess “what’s working and what’s not working.”
Deputy Superintendent Frances Ivey said that a “war room” of district and county administrators would go over the latest numbers and other information from schools daily, twice a day if necessary.
Board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer emphasized the effects on students’ mental and emotional makeups: “Too often the needs of the adults in the room have been at the center of the conversation.”
While people often say “kids are resilient,” she added, “We have to hold ourselves to the same high standards we’re holding our students to.”
Though she did support the plan, Sizemore Heizer cited the proximity of the school starting dates to spring break and said, “I don’t think this timeline does the best for our students.”
“This is not a perfect plan,” Brabrand said late, contending that no such thing exists in the middle of a pandemic. “But being able to unify around this plan does send a strong message to our community and to our staff.”
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