Uncertainty During Reopening Process Caused Some to Leave F.C. School System

VIRTUAL LEARNING was not a fit for Stephanie Amoroso’s fifth grade son, who she said became less joyful and curious about things than he was before as online schooling dragged on. (Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Amoroso)

Students in the City of Falls Church might notice a few of their peers are missing when they make their first, full-time return to class in over a year this week.

Over 200 students have unenrolled from Falls Church City Public Schools during the second academic year of the pandemic, according to a February report presented to the School Board. In exact numbers, 2,694 students were attending schools at all levels during the end of the 2019-20 school year; as of Jan. 31 of this school year, that number had dropped to 2,490. If you consider only the full-time students at Falls Church schools, that number sinks to 2,465, per a separate report that was presented at the same time.

Entry level grades at the Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary schools, as well as Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, were the most affected.

A total of 131 kindergarteners were enrolled as of Jan. 31 at Mount Daniel, while 181 ended the previous year at that grade. For Jefferson (which it was referred to in the official documents despite the School Board voting to change its name in December), the numbers were less severe — ending the 2019-20 year with 198 students in its youngest class of third graders, with 167 remaining as of Jan. 31. But Henderson had the most severe decline, as its youngest learners in sixth grade plummeted from 241 to finish last school year down to 155, again, as of Jan. 31.

For some families, the reopening process disenchanted them enough to uproot almost immediately.

“For my family, the damage has been done,” said Meredith West, a parent of a second grader and a kindergartener. “I don’t trust [the school system’s] decision making process, even though now I’m happy that they’ve decided to go back. There was so much misinformation, and just not clear communication with the parents for so long.”

West and her husband moved to the City specifically for the schools two years ago. They now live in Loudoun County and their children attend private schools. And they’re not the only family that has made a similar decision.

Erin Keating left the state entirely when her family moved to Georgia in March. To be clear, there were a lot of factors going into their relocation. Her family lived in the subsidized housing right next to Columbia Baptist Church because her husband worked for the parish. Their money could be stretched further down south. And Keating, who described herself as very center politically, found the City’s staunch progressivism unwelcoming. But as she put it, “the schools shutting down was sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Keating couldn’t understand how such a small school system couldn’t figure out how to reopen. She felt that FCCPS wasn’t realizing the impact that it was having on a lot of the families in the City, especially those that weren’t as well-heeled as its high-priced homes make it out to seem. It’s a tad ironic, too, since Keating’s kidney donation to Jefferson Elementary teacher Torey Fay helped the school system prevent any faculty attrition during the course of the pandemic, not including the teachers who opted out for this school year and will return for 2021-22.

The influence of teachers and other staffers has had a discernible impact on the pace of reopening. During a school board meeting in July, Falls Church schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan brought up that members of the custodial staff at George Mason High School had gotten Covid-19 — without any students in the building. That contributed to anxiety among teachers, and were major reasons why the hybrid reopening plan that over 90 percent of survey respondents supported for the fall semester was scrapped for a full-time virtual one instead.

After the first wave of vaccinations in mid-January and improving data to boot, Noonan was eyeing a return to hybrid instruction later that same month. But in his words, “there was a rather significant pushback to the plan.” He said quite a few teachers wrote to him and to the school board about their concern for the reopening timeline. So they did push back the target date for coming back to the hybrid return by three weeks.

A STRING of yard signs calling for the schools to reopen are found along Lincoln Avenue in the City of Falls Church. (Photo: News-Press)

Noonan made it clear that he didn’t “acquiesce to anyone” by delaying that reopening date. However, he also acknowledged that his proposed reopening plan may have caused teachers to leave the system altogether, ultimately motivating the postponement.

“So rather than put our teachers in a position where they had to make a hard decision about whether to quit or to return…I made a decision to push the reopening to ensure that we had best continuity of service for the students,” Noonan said.

Noonan also countered the narrative that teachers had a louder voice in the reopening process than families did. To him, the students’ interests were always the most important. But parents didn’t receive the message the same way.

“I didn’t think they were going to make a decision based on parent input. Let me put it that way. Because they don’t make any decisions based on what the parents actually want, it seems to me,” said Stephanie Amoroso, a City resident who got her fourth grade daughter into private school in Annandale in August and has a deposit down for her fifth grade son to attend a different private school as well. Before going that route, she debated moving herself and her children to her native Connecticut just to get access to schools, even while her husband would’ve stayed in Virginia for work.

These parents chose to remove their kids from Falls Church schools because they saw how the closures affected their children. West, the parent who moved her kids to Loudoun County, felt like her kids’ social and emotional development went backwards while only online. Amoroso said her son lost the joy and curiosity in his interests due to extensive virtual learning. And despite some early fears of in-person schooling once arriving in Georgia, Keating said her daughter and son have been thriving since they went back to class.

All the parents who spoke with the News-Press sympathized with the gravity of these choices Noonan and the school board have made along the way, especially during the initial Covid outbreak last spring. There were plenty of unknowns about what kind of virus the world was dealing with. Though as time went on and new data showed that schools weren’t hotspots for the disease, it became harder for them to stick by not reopening.

For Paul Thomas, a City resident whose fifth grade daughter attends a private school in Annandale and whose seventh grade daughter is still with Falls Church schools, it was a study done by Duke University that convinced him school leadership wasn’t paying close enough attention to the science.

That study, published in January, looked at 11 school districts in North Carolina over a nine week period that encompassed 90,000 students and staff attending in-person instruction. Contact tracing as a part of the study found that there were 773 cases acquired from the community.

Tracking community spread has been billed as an essential statistic in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reopening guidance, and is used by state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Health when giving advice to local school districts. Based on that data, researchers would have expected 800 – 900 secondary infections in schools. But the study found that only 32 infections were acquired within schools through secondary transmission.

DRESSED AND READY for her first day of school in October is Meredith West’s kindergartener. West’s family made the move to Loudoun County in January so both of her children could get access to in-person schooling. (Photo: Courtesy Meredith West)

The CDC’s missteps have become a larger part of the reopening conversation lately. A team of researchers found that three-feet of distancing was possible — along with masking and other mitigation measures — after they studied how it played out in Wisconsin schools. In a USA Today column in March, they said that the CDC didn’t take that data or analysis into account for its own reopening guidance, despite publishing it in one of their reports.

Noonan told the News-Press he hasn’t questioned the CDC’s authority on reopening since they worked so closely with VDH. He also said it wasn’t necessarily that the articles and studies sent to him by parents weren’t convincing, but they weren’t in line with the guidance he was receiving from the VDH.

For instance, while the American Association of Pediatrics advised schools to reopen over the summer, it said businesses should remain closed. Noonan felt that, given there was some logical inconsistency with its advice, it was unfair for people to jump solely on the bit of information that pertained to school reopenings.

There was no penalty for not following the VDH’s guidance on reopening, according to Noonan. But he did say he felt hamstrung by the fact that they only told schools how they could reopen; they never outright said when they could reopen if the data crossed a certain threshold, putting the ball firmly in his court to make that judgment call.

Though Noonan did admit that, in hindsight, the schools could’ve reopened earlier in the fall since the community’s virus data was much better than it would eventually become by the holiday season. He did add that the holiday closure likely would have still happened, which most parents agreed with as well.

Some of the parents suggested they’re considering rejoining Falls Church schools once Covid closures are no longer a thing. Noonan himself said that he’s seeing parents returning to the public schools from either homeschooling or pods they had set up on their own.

But for others, such as Austin Middleton who has his sons enrolled in second grade and kindergarten at Saint James Catholic School, there’s no thought of returning. He cited his lack of faith in Noonan’s leadership as the primary reason.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to place our children with those whom we trust; we are happy to make the financial sacrifice to do so,” Middleton wrote to the News-Press. “Had COVID not helped us make the choice to enroll at St. James, I am sure we would be returning to FCCPS once we were satisfied with the administration.”