Fairfax Co. teachers’ union calls for more inclusive virtual learning option

A teachers’ union in Fairfax County, Virginia, is urging Superintendent Scott Brabrand and school board members to continue offering a limited virtual school program for vulnerable students and staff.

The Fairfax Education Association, which says it represents over 4,000 school system employees, said in a letter last week that plans for the next school year don’t “seem to include any full-time virtual option for students who would request this option.”

The county offers homebound instruction for students with health risks that prevent them from attending in-person classes safely, but association President Kimberly Adams said in the letter that “is not necessarily the best model for those students and staff who need this limited virtual option to continue into the coming school year due to COVID risk.”

The letter was sent about two months after Fairfax County Public Schools announced plans to discontinue its virtual program, citing health experts who stressed the importance of in-person classes and the widespread availability of vaccines. Currently, virtual opportunities are limited to students who meet the county’s criteria for homebound instruction and those who enroll in the statewide Virtual Virginia program.

In nearby Prince William County, the virtual learning program will be limited to 1,000 K-8 students who meet the criteria.

In an emailed statement, the Fairfax County school system said, “We believe two things — our schools are safe for all students and our students are more successful learning in-person.”

With that in mind, and with the advice of community health experts that exemptions to in-person instruction should return to pre-pandemic criteria now that school-age children are eligible for vaccination.”

As of Monday afternoon, FEA said it hadn’t received a response to its letter. Adams separately urged the school board to consider a larger virtual option at a public hearing about the county’s future budget last week.

School board member Laura Jane Cohen said while ideally the school system would be able to offer a “robust virtual school setting in Fairfax County,” staffing such an operation could be challenging.

Adams, the FEA president, said the group contends that virtual students should be paired with virtual teachers, and in-person students should work with in-person teachers when possible. If Fairfax County can’t create such a program on its own, Adams said, a regional virtual model with Loudoun or Prince William counties may be beneficial.

“If we’re going to provide a fully virtual option for our students, we have the responsibility to make sure that you don’t lose anything in that translation, that your virtual education that you get is just as good as the one that you would get walking through the doors every day,” Cohen said. “As a board member, I kind of sit with the what’s my belief of what we should be able to offer, met with the reality of what can we offer? And what can we offer well?”

Also in her remarks at last Thursday’s budget hearing, Adams expressed opposition to a plan that would increase teacher contracts by three days to provide teachers with more professional development time before the school year begins. She said last week that it’s too late in the year for Brabrand to urge the school board to consider the change.

Cohen, the school board member, said Monday that the board hasn’t been approached about the possible change. Both Adams and Cohen said it will likely be discussed during Tuesday’s school board work session.

During the last school year, which started virtually, Cohen said staff appreciated extra planning time.

“I think that was the motivation for Dr. Brabrand, was to see are there ways to add some more professional development frontloaded on the beginning of the year,” Cohen said. “And the other piece is in working with a calendar that aligns with other counties.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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