FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — The nation’s 10th largest school system, which faced criticism from the Trump administration for offering only two days a week of in-person instruction in the fall, is now backing away from offering any in-person instruction.
The recommendation made Tuesday by Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand comes after weeks of planning for a hybrid opening in the fall, in which families could elect full-time distance learning, or an in-person option that featured two days of in-person learning plus two days of independent online learning.
Roughly 60 percent of families had chosen in-person learning. A majority of teachers, though — 52 percent — said they wanted to teach online only.
Brabrand cited a resurgence of the virus nationally as a major reason for the change, even though in Fairfax County and northern Virginia the rate of coronavirus cases has essentially remained steady for more than a month after falling dramatically from a peak in in April and May.
“We are not in the same position we were just three weeks ago,” Brabrand said.
The vast majority of public school systems in the Washington, D.C., region are opening online only. Neighboring Loudoun County was the only major school system in the region that had been forging ahead with a plan for in-person learning, but on Tuesday the school board there also announced its intention to backtrack and begin the year fully online.
Fairfax County found itself a punching bag for critics in the national debate over school reopening. The most prominent criticism of FCPS has come from Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said even before the school system backed away from its in-person option that the choices offered were “not valid options and choices for families and it’s not full-time instruction.”
On the other side, teachers’ unions faulted the school system for offering any kind of in-person instruction, saying it puts staff at unnecessary risk of infection. One teachers’ union has said instruction should remain virtual until a vaccine is available.
The attention paid to the nation’s 10th largest school system, located just outside the nation’s capital in one of America’s wealthiest counties, is not surprising, Brabrand said in an interview last week.
“For a lot of the policymakers at the national levels, Fairfax County is their local school system,” Brabrand said. Exacerbating the situation, he said, is the fact that “school reopening has been politicized as an issue at the national electoral level.”
School board member Megan McLaughlin called Brabrand’s backtrack a “breach of trust,” noting that Fairfax County has not seen the surge or uptick in cases that has occurred nationally and in other parts of Virginia.
But a majority of board members indicated at Tuesday’s work session that they’d support Brabrand’s recommendation.
School board member Abrar Omeish had been advocating throughout for a full-time online opening, perhaps allowing for small exceptions for special-education students and those for whom English is a second language. She was concerned that offering a choice to families placed such a massive strain on the system such that neither option would be successful.
“In my view trying to build up essentially two campuses in two months is not a plan that’s conducive for success,” she said in a phone interview Monday.
Some parents are leery of the online option after Fairfax County schools fumbled the transition to distance learning in the spring with reports of widespread technical failures and misbehavior. Brabrand acknowledged the initial problems but said the online experience “soared” in the final two months after an initial two weeks of struggles.
Kathy Haight, whose daughter Christine will be attending George C. Marshall High School in the fall, had opted for in-person instruction despite real concerns about the virus. She said she was reassured about the safety of in-person instruction by the school’s principal, who conducted an online town hall meeting and emphasized strict enforcement of mask wearing and other preventive measures.
“I know she needs to be at school. She needs the in-person instruction,” Haight said of her daughter.
Dionna Wise, who has three children at Marshall, chose full-time distance learning over their objections. She said the risk of virus exposure is too high, especially considering that the children’s grandmother lives in the home with them.
“All the reasons the kids want to be in school are not going to be the reality,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to go to school and stand in the hallway and talk to friends. It’s not going to be what you think it’s going to be,” she said.