Fairfax and Loudoun Public Schools set reopening dates

The school boards of Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools voted Tuesday evening to approve timelines that start with returning vulnerable children, including students with disabilities and English-language learners, on Feb. 16. Both plans also call for all students who select hybrid learning to begin heading into classrooms next month.

In Fairfax, which enrolls 186,000, any student who ­chooses it will be able to return to classrooms for two days of in-person learning each week by March 16. In Loudoun, which enrolls 81,000, any student can opt to return two days a week by March 3. In both districts, families that want to keep learning online-only will be able to do so.

Fairfax Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand hailed the new plan, which earned unanimous approval from the county School Board, as an end to months of dysfunction — and a saving measure for students who are struggling emotionally and academically in the era of Zoom school.

“We acknowledge that no situation is risk-free, but the risks are greater in not returning students at this time,” Brabrand said. “Our president has asked for this, and we must come together now.”

The vast majority of students in Fairfax and Loudoun have been learning online-only since schools shuttered almost a year ago in March. The two systems returned thousands of students for brief stretches of face-to-face schooling last semester but, after coronavirus cases spiked significantly close to winter break, switched back to remote-only schooling.

Both school districts are staggering the return of students according to need and age. In Fairfax, very young children with learning disabilities and high-schoolers taking certain career prep classes will return Feb. 16. A week later, more special education students, as well as general education pre-kindergartners and kindergartners, will return. Eighth-, ninth- and 12th-graders will return in a batch on March 2, followed by first-, second-, seventh-, 10th- and 11th-graders on March 9, and finally third- through sixth-graders on March 16.

Brabrand said Fairfax is almost sufficiently staffed to instruct all of these children. Ninety percent of Fairfax staff members have either requested or scheduled vaccination appointments, he said, and many have indicated their readiness to return to teaching in-person in the meantime.

Still, as vaccinations proceed, Fairfax has been forced to hire “classroom monitors” to make up the gap — people who will “cover in-person classrooms for instructors who are teaching from home,” according to a school system news release.

Under Fairfax’s “concurrent” model of hybrid learning, educators will simultaneously teach in-person and remote students.

Officials have hired 92 percent of the monitors required to return the first cohort of students on Feb. 16, as well as 88 percent of the monitors necessary to bring back the second cohort. Fairfax is still looking for 205 more monitors before it will be sufficiently staffed to return all children to in-person schooling.

In remarks before the county School Board on Tuesday, Brabrand gave kudos to principals for “aggressive hiring [and] stopgap solutions” that will make face-to-face instruction possible on a large scale.

The timeline approved by the Loudoun County School Board — on a vote of 8 to 1 — is less detailed and moves a little faster.

It calls for about 16,400 students to head back into classrooms no later than Feb. 16, a group that will include children with disabilities, English-language learners, high-schoolers taking career and technical classes, and general education prekindergarten through fifth-graders. It declares, without offering specifics, that all remaining students who choose in-person learning must be allowed back into classrooms “no later than March 3.”

In each school districts, the superintendent will retain the power to switch all or some students back to remote-only schooling, if the public health situation demands it.

For months, Northern Virginia school officials repeatedly delayed the decision to send students and staff members back into buildings. In explanation, administrators have pointed to the nation’s inability to contain the coronavirus pandemic, but another factor may have been outspoken advocacy from teachers’ associations, which have pushed for remote learning from the start.

Now, although many teachers’ groups are demanding full vaccination of employees before the return to school, the momentum appears to be shifting toward in-person instruction.

The Biden administration has put a sharp focus on the nation’s schools and the fate of its schoolchildren during online learning. Data is emerging that shows the toll that virtual school has taken on the most vulnerable students and that e-learning has significantly widened the equity gap in achievement — at the same time that studies are concluding that open schools do not function as hotbeds of virus transmission.

President Biden spoke of reopening classrooms in his inaugural address last month and later said he would like to see most K-8 schools reopen in the first 100 days of his administration. That attitude seems to be inspiring state- and county-level leaders, including Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who are calling on schools to reopen now.

In Loudoun, those calls are gaining renewed force from hundreds of parents who say they and their children have been driven to the point of breakdown by online learning. A parent’s impassioned testimony at a board meeting last month went viral online, spurring interim schools superintendent Scott A. Ziegler to send a message to all Loudoun families asking for “Patience, Flexibility, Comfort with the Not-Yet-Known, and Grace.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, dozens of parents spoke to denounce Loudoun’s decision not to open schools — and Ziegler’s email in particular.

One mother said she recently withdrew her children from Loudoun public schools and switched to private schooling. Another mother said
she could no longer recognize her child, because he had grown so angry and disillusioned with the world during distance learning. Still another mother said her daughter had told her that online school made her want to take her own life.

By contrast, the meeting in Fairfax marked a rare moment of harmony, after what the superintendent characterized as months of division. School Board sessions on reopening regularly turned acrimonious during the past 11 months, often stretching to the early hours of the morning — and just as often without resulting in a consensus.

But on Tuesday, as staff members presented Brabrand’s reopening timeline, board members nodded along, then asked a handful of questions about implementation, shared support for the plan and expressed gratitude for officials’ hard work.

The board was not supposed to formally vote on the timeline until its next meeting, scheduled for Thursday night. But approval seemed so widespread that it decided to hold the vote early.

Afterward, Brabrand seemed elated, and emotional.

“Thank you all for your leadership today and your partnership with us,” he said. “I am deeply, deeply grateful, more than I can express right now.”

Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who has often clashed with the superintendent, noted in concluding remarks that the meeting extended past its allotted time by only 35 minutes.

“On a reopening meeting, [that’s] rare,” she said. “I do believe that what today’s session presents is a united board that supports moving forward.”