F.C. Schools Superintendent Presents Phased Reopening Plan

SCHOOL SPIRIT LIVES ON, even with schools closed, as Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School staff celebrated the birthday of Henderson herself on Friday. (Photo: Courtesy Vikki Spencer Ehrlich)

Falls Church City Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan laid out a carefully charted and phased plan for students to begin returning to classrooms starting in two weeks to the F.C. School Board at its virtual work session Tuesday night.

Noonan initially unveiled the plan in a written memo to the schools’ leadership last Friday. A follow-up memo sent yesterday reiterated the plan “to have approximately 80 of our most impacted students return to learning in schools during the first two weeks of October.”

On Oct. 6, he reported that secondary (grades 6-12) special student populations, those engaged in life skills and therapeutic classrooms, will begin in person instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Oct. 13, preschool Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) enrolled students will begin in-person learning on Tuesdays and Fridays and some elementary students with specialized services and ESOL needs will also begin some classroom learning.

“Specifically,” Noonan wrote last week, “We are looking to bring back our students in Life Skills; therapeutic day programs; students whose IEP calls for more than 50 percent time instructed by a special education teacher; hearing, vision, and orthopedically impaired; a small number of ESOL students; and PreK students that are in special education or participate in the VPI program. The total number of students this group represents is approximately 80. The timing for the return is the first and second weeks of October.”

These students will be followed by elementary school students who will return in a phased-by-grade approach at some point in early November. The first to return would be Kindergarten and 3rd grade students, and if this is successful, then by 1st and 4th grade, and then 2nd and 5th grade.

The goal, Noonan said, “is to have all elementary students participating in a hybrid, minimum two-day-a-week in-person instruction model by the first week in December, and secondary school students will return to in-school learning at the beginning of the second semester in the new high school building.”

The timeline presented to the School Board Tuesday included a Sept. 21 town hall meeting with Mt. Daniel and Thomas Jefferson elementary staff to begin planning, a Sept. 28 start date (next Monday) for all school-based administrators and special populations staff to begin working from buildings full time to prepare and adjust to the “new normal.”

With students beginning to return on Oct. 6 and 13, Oct. 19 will be the tentative date for kindergarten and 3rd grade staff to return to buildings full time to prepare for their students to begin instruction in a hybrid model on Nov. 5.

In his memo to the school staff issued Wednesday, Noonan said, “If for any reason you are not comfortable with or able to return to work in buildings or with students in person, please reach out to the Human Resources office to discuss your options.”

Noonan stressed to parents and staff alike, “As a working parent of school-aged kids who are online, I am walking the road by your side, and I will say this is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, so I hope you feel my empathy. I remain optimistic in our approach to returning, and I am also realistic.”

Careful attention is paid in this process, he stressed, to health metrics as provided by the Fairfax Health Department and Virginia Department of Health.

For example, a seven-day positivity rate of those tested, with the goal of being below 5.0 percent, which across the four Northern Virginia health districts is now at 4.4 percent with a 14-day decline and 7.8 percent of new cases per 100,000 (the goal being below 10.0). The infection rate among the total population, the goal being under 1.1 is currently 0.96 with a 14-day overall decline.

VDH’s Composite Data shows Northern Virginia overall ranked Low with a trend of Fluctuating But Steady, and overall in 13 categories the health metrics in the four area health districts are below targets.

Guided by a Continuum of Reopening Stages, as conditions improve, advancing from Moderate to Low Risk, moves can proceed to hybrid reopening for special populations and for an entire division in a phased approach to “new normal” operations for all students and staff in face-to-face learning.

It was stressed that “any classroom/school closure decisions will be based on the level of exposure and guidance from the Fairfax County Health Department in collaboration with the Falls Church City Public Schools leadership. This is a fluid process with rolling closures, quarantines and isolations as a part of school reopenings and life in a pandemic. The flexibility of all stakeholders is paramount in this continuum and our collective efforts to be safe.”

The “common understandings” Noonan stressed must be that “everyone must make safe choices and follow mitigation guidelines in and out of school; there is no 100 percent safe environment until we have a vaccine; we are prepared for responding in the event there is a case or quarantine is indicated; and, we must be flexible and able to adapt to change in a fluid manner.”

He added, “We have to do this together as a community, as this is a shared responsibility. Thank you again for your dedication to our schools and your students during this unprecedented time in history. There are no easy choices in this situation. The health and safety of all is paramount. We need your support now more than ever.”