Despite the extraordinary challenges of opening the new school year with solely online distance learning due to the persisting Covid-19 pandemic, there was nothing but praise and appreciation for the roll out of the first day of school throughout the Falls Church public school system this Monday.
That’s how it came across at Tuesday night’s online F.C. School Board meeting that included a school-by-school assessment of the opening by Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan, who reported that he was able to look in on many of the classes and that many teachers at all levels chose to lead their students from their actual classrooms, rather than from home.
The two greatest concerns as the year begins in this fashion are: 1. How many registered students are actually showing up and 2. What is the timetable for when a transition to either a form of hybrid (a combination of days in class and days at home) or full in-class teaching might be.
On the first question, Noonan reported that of the 2,555 students projected, 143 were no-shows on the first day. The biggest shortfall was at the kindergarten level where there was an undercount of 31 compared to expectations, at the Jesse Thackrey Preschool, where 20 out of 51 did not log in, and in the 9th grade, where 24 students didn’t show up. At the high school level, 99 percent of students were present, being 858 out of 868 students, all but 10.
It was noted that the head count that matters, that gets figured into the calculations for state and federal support, does not come until the end of September.
On the second question, Dr. Noonan said he does not share the willingness of some neighboring school systems to provide an optional date for opening at least for English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and special education instruction. By contrast, he said, “Data and safety drive our decisions” on reopening options.
As for right now, he noted, the data is not looking good for this area, with the Virginia Department of Health and Fairfax Health Department report this week that the area’s classification has changed from “low” to “moderate” risk from the spread of the Covid-19 virus. “Right now the data is not going in a good direction,” he said. “We’re dealing with small numbers, but we must be very careful and thoughtful in assessing the situation.”
He said his staff is “working internally to develop a strategy for bringing back some of the most vulnerable student populations, including the youngest ones.”
But opening day Monday, the first time the system opened before Labor Day, the reviews were very favorable. The student member of the board, George Mason High’s Elizabeth Snyder, said “The first day went very well.”
Noonan said looking in on some of the classes, “It was heartening to see kids smiling,” adding, “By and large, it went very well. Teachers expressed great enthusiasm for seeing the kids.”
School Board chair Greg Anderson said, “It was a stellar start to the year.” Board member Susan Dimock said her own children in the system were “very excited” and “It was a great start to the school year.”
Opening day was also acknowledged by two Washington, D.C.-based television news organizations, NBC Channel 4 and ABC Channel 7, who filmed and interviewed some Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and Mt. Daniel Elementary teachers.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Noonan announced some administrative personnel changes, including the addition of a new Athletic Director Marvin Wooten, Athletic Student Activities Director Hillary Trebels, the move from Arlington back to the City of Falls Church by Mason High graduate Sarah Snyder to become director of counseling, and the shift from the high school English classroom teacher to Mason Assistant Principal by GMHS grad Peter Laub.
At Henderson, Adam White is coming on as an assistant principal, Brittany Allen-Shaw joining the Special Education administration, Darius Coulibaly to the Lighthouse program and Dr. Rory Dippold as the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program coordinator.
Noonan said that the Thackrey Preschool experienced “greater engagement than expected with some new kids that were not planned for.” The first-day challenge included that “we weren’t able to get all connected” online.
At Mt. Daniel, all the teachers were leading from their classrooms. At Thomas Jefferson, it was reported that some students were finding it difficult “to stay focused” during the school day.
At Henderson, all teachers taught from their classrooms and found their students “full of energy,” Noonan reported.
At Mason High, Noonan said he encountered an “impressive dialog” in the virtual classroom he looked in on.
He stressed the three cornerstones of the year’s instruction challenges, to become “the premiere K-12 IB division in the world,” to realize a caring culture, and to close gaps among the students.
The School Board received two letters, including one from the Athletic Boosters group, from parents urging the early introduction of fall sports practices.
It also discussed “charges” for its array of citizen advisory committees, with concerns expressed in the discussion of the Health and Wellness Committee about the heightened stress on students in the online virtual environment.
School Board member Phil Reitinger spoke of the concern for “cyber bullying” that can occur outside the purview of the staff, Board member Shawna Russell expressed concern for physical activity issues and Board member Susan Dimock said that there is a special challenge for effective communication throughout the system under the current circumstances.
“Charges” to advisory bodies also encompassed the Business in Education (BIE) Partnership with new opportunities for minority owned businesses to participate. Also, efforts to include more family engagement from the ESOL group, monitor success with a “lens to equity” in the gifted student group, support for family models in the special education group, and look at equity policies and procedures for the daycare group were all covered.