Fairfax County proposes possible scenarios for beginning 2020-21 school year

Krutika Joshi, Editor-in-Chief

The Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) School Board has begun discussing possible options for how to begin the school year in the fall of 2020. As the 2019-20 school year nears its end and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic persists indefinitely, FCPS is considering three main options: A virtual start to the 2020-21 school year, a more traditional, in-person start to the school year while enforcing social distancing guidelines guidelines, or a hybrid of the two with some students and staff in school, and some participating through virtual learning. 

While FCPS awaits state guidance on the reopening of schools, they have established some precautions that must be fulfilled. The return to school, however it proceeds, must guarantee a safe learning environment and workplace for students and staff, accommodate those who are unable to return to school or work, abide by social distancing guidelines, ensure equitable access to technology and the internet for all students and provide appropriate time for staff training. The decision for the rest of the plan will be determined through health and safety considerations, facility considerations and risk evaluations.

As of May 27, Fairfax County recorded a total number of 10,181 coronavirus cases, 1,285 hospitalizations and 376 deaths. Over 200 new cases surface daily, indicating that the county is yet to reach its peak in cases infected. Furthermore, many anticipate a second surge of the virus in the U.S., and the nature of the virus during heat and humidity remains unpredictable. FCPS officials will need to consider these numbers as they make decisions about the next school year. 

With the next iteration of distance learning, the county would need to provide all students with a 1:1 device and internet connectivity (MiFi, or portable WiFi), update technology to fit educational needs and digital curriculum, and purchase and develop Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum. These tasks are predicted to cost $3.5 million on an annual lease, $2.6 million and $1.1 million respectively. FCPS will finetune the current virtual system to better fit students’ learning needs by revising schedules and establishing routines. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), distance learning is the safest and lowest risk school setting; the risk of the virus spreading increases as more people enter a school. 

If schools were to reopen, social distancing regulations could require alternating day schedules between virtual and in-school and modifying transportation and classroom facilities. Currently, the county employs 1,192 buses across all school levels. In adherence to social distancing, each student would be assigned to one seat, reducing the bus capacity by 50% for middle and high school and 67% for elementary school. FCPS would thus require 779 new buses and drivers. To follow social distancing in the classrooms, desks would be placed six feet apart, resulting in classroom sizes of 12 students or less. Finally, sanitization and health procedures would be intensified. This would entail the purchase of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) such as masks and thermometers, additional cleaning supplies and an increase in custodial and public health nurse staffing, all of which is estimated to cost $6.2 million. 

Finally, in the event that certain staff members and students are unable to return to school, high school students would enroll in FCPS Online Campus classes, and middle and elementary schoolers would enroll with an online provider such as Virtual Virginia and participate in classes comprised of students learning both in-person and virtually. 

FCPS released a preliminary report outlining these possibilities regarding the 2020-21 school year, as well as graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and 2020 Summer Programs. The school board intends to communicate with and update county residents on the progressions of their discussions, and the course of the 2020-21 school year will be announced in June. This decision is undoubtedly a delicate one, not only in terms of safety and health hazards, but also in terms of appeasing parents and teachers. 

Many would prefer a return to some degree of normalcy and are optimistic about the viability of reopening school with social distancing measures. The preference for reopening schools is augmented by the reported inaccessibility and inequity of distance learning, and barriers in successfully teaching younger and special education students through virtual learning.

“My students have struggled with distance learning. Online teaching does not lend itself to being able to implement their specialized programs with fidelity, which results in less progress being made,” Virginia Run Elementary learning disabilities teacher Lori Castellaw said. “With precautions in place, I feel like school starting in the fall would be the best case scenario.”

However, some are uneasy with the thought of returning to school buildings, since it could prove to be hasty. In fact, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll, 20% of teachers in the U.S. stated that they will not return to their classrooms even if schools reopen. 

“I think that going virtual next year is probably the best option because there still isn’t a vaccine for the virus,” Kameela Lemma (’21) said. “Without that, I don’t feel confident in returning to school.”

Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has announced the assembly of education leaders, superintendents and representatives from all school levels and universities on a panel that meets to discuss the next steps for reopening schools throughout the state. This task force will release a report with the state’s recommendations and requirements about reopening schools by the end of May. While he stressed the uncertainty of the future, Northam expressed some optimism in his press briefing on May 18.

“As soon as we can safely get our students back into the classroom, we will do that,” Northam said. “I am hopeful that our students will be back in the classroom this fall.”