CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that Jessie Thackrey Preschool would not be able to accommodate high risk and special needs students there. That language was incorrect and has been updated to reflect the correct information.
With 2,524 survey responses from parents of students in the system received by the Falls Church City Public Schools as of Tuesday, an overwhelming 2,247 said they favor the current board proposal for a hybrid teaching model, Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan reported at Tuesday’s School Board meeting.
The hybrid model as currently developed for the system involves two days of face-to-face teaching and two days of online instruction per week.
The need “to connect with peers” was given as the single most important reason for favoring the hybrid approach, according to the survey results.
In this context, Noonan announced that a preliminary plan to bring back all students of the City’s two elementary schools — Thomas Jefferson and Mt. Daniel — on grounds that seven new spaces were found to accommodate them with social distancing, was withdrawn due to a strong reaction from parents fearful that safety considerations would be compromised.
On the other hand, the hybrid plan that is moving ahead in advance of the August 24 school year start date contrasts with the Arlington School District decision announced this Monday that all teaching this fall will be virtual.
This was decided, Noonan reported out of a meeting of all regional school superintendents on Monday, because of a higher Covid-19 infection rate in Arlington than, for example, Falls Church.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the rate of Covid-19 infections in Arlington is 103.8 per 10,000, compared to 47.2 per 10,000 rate in a Fairfax County McLean area that, for the sake of the survey, includes Falls Church.
Decisions facing the Falls Church Public School System represent “the biggest challenge any of us have faced in our careers,” Noonan said at the marathon online School Board meeting Tuesday.
With just six weeks until schools open for the fall, the board, staff and superintendent “have been planning for multiple scenarios” while striving to remain “flexible and nimble,” Noonan said.
A survey of 349 staffers, including teachers, reveals a “lot of worry and fear,” Noonan revealed.
“Emotions are running high, there is a lot of stress,” acknowledged Board member Laura Downs.
“We will be erring on the side of caution,” Noonan stressed, noting that contrary to guidance indicating that three-foot social distancing is acceptable, “We’re insisting on six-foot distancing with facial coverings.”
Concerning the Jessie Thackrey Preschool, for example, staffers reported that the facility will only be able to accommodate all the high risk and special needs students who are expected there.
Noonan said his team is working with the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks chief Danny Schlitt, whom he described as a “Let’s Get to Yes guy,” to see if some of his facilities might be made available for the preschool needs this fall.
“Keeping students and faculty safe is our Number One priority,” Noonan said, “and we’re following all the safety elements, including monitoring the data like crazy and watching trends and listening to the staff and community.”
According to Chief Academic Officer William Bates, education options will be mailed to all parents this Friday.
The elementary schools will work with the Virginia Department of Education -recommended Virtual Virginia in combination with F.C. teachers who will infuse International Baccalaureate components and rigor into the instruction.
For the middle and high school, grades 6 to 12, online instruction will come through the hybrid Hy-C program that will accommodate those seeking International Baccalaureate diplomas as well as those seeking individual IB classes and are aligned with the state’s Standards of Learning criteria.
Noonan said the deadline for school principals to submit their detailed opening plans, ranging from doors to enter, temperature stations, quarantine rooms and a communications strategy, are due on June 27.
According to Kristen Michael, work is being done on ventilation with an aim to increase the amount of outside air that is filtrated through the classrooms.
Noonan said that Falls Church is working with the Fairfax Health Department that has hired 500 people for “contact tracing,” set up as “one of the best programs in the U.S.”
There will be seating charts for use in the event any student tests positive for purposes of contact tracing, which will be done with anyone proximate that has been near the student for 15 minutes or more.
Noonan said he had a productive meeting with members of the Falls Church Education Foundation Monday night, but noted that bringing parents onto campuses to volunteer “is problematic” given current concerns.
Better, he said, to support the efforts of teachers. “Every week should be Teacher Appreciation Week,” he quipped, and effort be made to “create a culture around facial coverings.”
“We must strive to make everybody accountable to everybody,” he stressed.
“We all have a roll to play in how the fall goes,” said Board chair Greg Anderson prior to reading a formal statement of support and confidence in the efforts of Dr. Noonan and his staff that decisions are being made with the best interests of all in the context of the plethora of information and feedback considerations taken into account.
At the beginning of the meeting, another spate of letters were read into the record concerning consideration of changing the names of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason schools on grounds that those Founding Father figures owned slaves.
One letter in favor of keeping the names was from the daughter of the founder of the Falls Church system’s IB program, the late Lou Olom, who said he would have wanted to names to be retained based on their overriding contributions to democratic values, and one from a self-proclaimed member of the “Hell no, we won’t go” generation who graduated from Mason in 1970.
Joel Block, the Henderson Middle School teacher of the Falls Church Education Association, questioned the cost of a name change in these troubled times and what tradeoffs they might require. He noted that changing the name of Justice High School in Fairfax County was estimated to cost $445,000.