The last couple of weeks of students in the Falls Church City Public School System have begun a return to classrooms, if only on a partial hybrid basis and limited to lower grades, has combined with unbridled enthusiasm for the highly-praised new high school, some warmer weather and the continued vaccinations of key populations here to create an upbeat environment of optimism around the City’s public schools.
Notwithstanding ongoing and mostly valid laments by some parents that the schools have not already been fully opened, a cautious and ordered transition process has led Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan to announce this week that after spring break, (March 29-April 5) pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students will come into a five-day per week full-day in-person instruction.
He also stressed that the plan is to have all students in the system whose families wish it to have full five-day in-person instruction with the beginning of the fall semester in late August.
Noonan made the announcements in a written communique last Friday. “Access to vaccines brings hope as we move forward. Each day there is more positive news. As a division, over 94 percent of staff have received both doses of the vaccine. Health data in Falls Church City continues to move in the right direction for cases per 100,000 and percent of positivity,” he wrote.
However, he told the School Board at its meeting Tuesday that the City’s rate of 68.41 per 100,000 virus transmission rate is slightly above the Virginia Department of Health’s recommended benchmark of 50 per 100,000. Even though the positivity rate (percentage of the total population infected by the virus) at 3.5 percent is far below the recommended rate of 8 percent or less, the rule of thumb is to go by the higher of the two rates.
By that standard, the City’s schools are not the highest level of preparation for full reopening yet, but getting extremely close, Noonan said.
After spring break, high school students will have daily access to the new high school and planning is beginning for senior class Prom and Graduation in June, Noonan reported. While there will be summer school, maybe limited to literacy and math, it may be challenged by a lack of available staffing.
In the fall, there will be only in-classroom and home options, no hybrid ones.
Noonan has stuck to his policy of six-foot social distancing for in-class instruction, even though some are arguing for a three-foot distancing. He reiterated his justification at Tuesday’s board meeting, saying that by standards of the Virginia Department of Health, anyone testing positive for the virus must be subjected to a contact tracing that covers anyone up to six feet. Therefore, it is not prudent to sit students only three feet apart.
“Some people don’t like that I call it a six-foot ‘mandate,’ but by extrapolation, it effectively is,” he said.
In comments to the City Council Monday, Noonan urged people “listen to the science,” contrasting the many who are supportive of his measured approach to reopening safely to those noisy parents who want a full reopening now. “A lot of folks are very pleased with what we are doing,” he said.
Noonan wrote in his missive on March 5, “Through all the twists and turns, disappointments, and successes of the past year, our goal has never wavered. We want to welcome every student who desires to return to in-person learning back into the buildings safely, as soon as possible, and as often as possible. The new routines resulting from Covid have complicated every step along the way for our collective community and individual families.”
He added, “We unite around the goal of bringing students back to school buildings in-person full time. But there is much work to do to get there. School teams and central office support staff are working hard on that process. This is another step along a new path as we navigate through instruction, operations and support services to make this happen.”
Noonan stressed that the school system “is benefitting from abundant support from stakeholders in this community.” He’s formed a Reopening Advisory Group of parents, teachers, staff members and representatives from across the community “that will provide me with ideas, feedback and questions to help ensure we are on the right path to move forward and achieve our goals.”