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New School Year in Falls Church Begins with Cautious Optimism

MERIDIAN HIGH SCHOOL will have its first day of school Aug. 30. This will be the first full year in the new high school. (Photo: News-Press)

The big news made at yesterday morning’s Falls Church City Public Schools’ convocation, other than that it was the first big event held in the new Meridian High School auditorium and marked the resumption of a new school year with full in-person instruction for all, was the fact that the system’s world class International Baccalaureate (IB) program gained even more stature with the announcement that its pre-school program at the Jesse Thackrey site has also been officially certified as an IB institution, bringing the entire system, preschool through Grade 12, into its highly-prestigious fold.

So, when FCCPS Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan said yet again, as he did at yesterday’s convocation, that the Falls Church system’s goal is to be the best IB system in the entire world, he wasn’t kidding.

In-person classes begin for all students next Monday, Aug. 30, with no virtual learning options except for special circumstances. It will mark the official grand opening of the new $120 million high school facility, along with its new name, Meridian High. That first week will be short, however, with Friday off for the launch of the Labor Day weekend, the following Monday off for Labor Day itself and Tuesday off in recognition of Rosh Hashanah.

Meanwhile, all outdoor falls sports programs, including football, cross country and field hockey, are underway already, with volleyball being the only indoor program and subject to mitigation protocols (that is, masking required of all spectators but none required of vaccinated athletes.)

Noonan reported that, along with not a single infection being reported over the summer here, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Fairfax Health Department data projects that the Delta variant is expected to peak in the next week, and to become less prominent after that, according to a University of Virginia study.

Presentations made at the packed auditorium convocation event came under the year’s new theme of  “Roots, Resilience and Renewal.” As Noonan explained, the “roots” component included the metaphor of California’s giant redwoods, which despite their amazing heights, have very shallow roots. They stay standing through all kinds of adversity, he noted, because their shallow roots intertwine with one another to mutually strengthen the resilience of each.

The system is opening fully to in-person classes, with all students and staff required to wear masks in the face of the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, including on school buses. Because with the system’s aggressive mitigation measures, not a single case of a new infection was detected over the summer, and all but three members of the 350-person FCCPS staff are fully vaccinated now, and 80 percent of the City of Falls Church population of 12 to 15 year olds have received at least one dose, along with 94 percent of all ages 16-17 with a week to go before classes begin.

Mitigation efforts will remain in effect, based on a mandatory masking policy and three-foot social distancing, Noonan reported. He went into detail on these measures in a virtual town hall presentation Monday night. At its peak, over 230 were watching on YouTube. He said he and other key staff personnel in the F.C. system are carefully monitoring the CDC, Virginia departments of health and education, and Fairfax Health Department reports to make sure current plans will hold.

“We are practicing situational awareness,” he said, and is optimistic the outcomes will enable the system to move ahead. “We all have the same goals, to bring all our students safely back into the schools. We live in a community that is eager to make that work.”

Meanwhile, unlike problems facing some other school districts, the Falls Church system is not facing any shortages in personnel, either in classrooms or otherwise, Noonan told the News-Press in an interview. He said there is a shortage of only one bus driver as of this week.

Mitigation measures involve thorough hand washing and sanitizing, nightly deep cleaning of all buildings, limits on non-essential visitors, active Covid Response teams to implement contact tracing and monitoring, the presence of a public health nurse and fully-staffed clinics at all the schools. The clinics will include isolation rooms where an exposed student can be placed until a parent or social worker shows up in addition to the health clinic that will take care of routing issues.

Students who come in contact with an infected person will undergo a “pause,” a 48-hour quarantine, or an isolation of up to 10 days or a quarantine if unvaccinated and symptomatic for up to 14 days. At the Thackrey preschool, temperature checks of all students entering the facility will be taken daily. At Mount Daniel and Oak Street Elementary, checks will be on a random basis, and at Henderson Middle and Meridian High, only in cases where a student is symptomatic.

Students are encouraged to enter the middle and new high school from a mid-block entrance on Haycock Road, although a route that goes up Route 7 also can work.

The “Roots, Resilience and Renewal” theme dominating the convocation Tuesday focused on Noonan’s remarks on “sustainability” obtained, he said, through the integrated pursuits of “social equity, environmental integrity and economic security.”

The system’s “true north,” he said, is grounded in “being unified, creating change for the better, and being of service to the community,”

“We are models of resilience for our students…We bend but do not break… Our goal is to be the best IB program in the world…We define who we are and do what we do best…We need to be there for each other.”

The system has adopted the 17-point United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as “we are already doing all of them,” he said.

Teacher remarks played on a video included the models of playwright Anton Chekov and “Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan for senior English students under Angela Weston, experts in Mata Ortiz pottery for art students under Mark Robarge, and challenges to gender stereotypes among Latino leaders in the U.S. for middle school students under Miguel Gonzales.

Noonan thanked the wider Falls Church City community for its support of the system during the difficult last year, urging people to “listen to the silence” demonstrating support among the vast majority against the loud complaints of the few.

The system’s longest tenured employee, Eduardo Molina, the head of custodial services, spoke briefly about his 30-year career in the system. School Board chair Shannon Litton, Falls Church Education Foundation executive director Debbie Hiscott, and Falls Church Education Association president Farrell Kelly also delivered welcoming remarks.