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Fairfax County School Board Member Melanie Meren: “I have not heard from the Superintendent a request or recommendation to shift to all virtual.”

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Last night, NBC4 Washington reported, at the top of the 6 pm newscast, that “Fairfax Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand will present a recommendation to the school board Tuesday afternoon that might require all students start the school year with distance learning.” Is that true? Not really, accoding to the following Facebook post by Fairfax County School Board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, introducing another post by her School Board colleague, Melanie Meren, on “how to post in response to the hundreds of emails I got just today” regarding reopening schools this fall. A few key points made by Sizemore Heizer and Meren:

  • “The School Board will meet Tuesday 2-6 to discuss Return to School. This is an open meeting, contrary to rumor.”
  • “COVID is a community problem. We need community support, community guidance, and community solutions.”
  • While “it’s reasonable to think that FCPS is considering” starting school virtually this fall, “I have not heard from the Superintendent a request or recommendation to shift to all virtual.”
  • “The entire weight of this is passed onto our school board of 12 people who are racking our brains to use available data, weigh the input and anxious cries from staff and the public, the science of how children best learn and the impact of trauma, and determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of Fairfax and area residents.”
  • “…our government systems in Virginia and nationally aren’t built for school boards and localities to handle this kind of a decision.”

So as I was sitting here with a few hours of work left, trying to figure out how to post in response to the hundreds of emails I got just today, my colleague Melanie Meren, Hunter Mill School Board Member, posted pretty close to what I’ve been trying to say. So I am sharing her words.

I’ll just add that I’ve also looked at California’s incredible guidance provided to schools regarding metrics and testing (even random or pool testing that I’ve been advocating for since early June!) and wish we had anything close to that here. (Link here https://www.gov.ca.gov/…/governor-gavin-newsom-lays-out-pa…/)

Before I share Melanie’s post, here are a few words of my own:

The School Board will meet Tuesday 2-6 to discuss Return to School. This is an open meeting, contrary to rumor. You can watch live at www.fcps.edu/tv/ch99 or Ch 99. Or later on the FCPS YouTube channel.

I’m hoping to get some guidance like this tomorrow from our health department. We need health experts to guide us about safety and metrics. We are not doctors.

COVID is a community problem. We need community support, community guidance, and community solutions.

Below is Melanie’s post. It’s long but spot on.

“I’d like to clarify here the status of the School Board’s work regarding the Fall, and potential movement to an all-virtual start to the year.

I’m aware of spreading rumors and anxiety about a pending decision to begin virtually. Let me share with you what I know: given that area jurisdictions are making that decision, it’s reasonable to think that FCPS is considering it. Area Superintendents have been meeting throughout the closure to try and plan for complementary approaches as possible, given that people work and live in different jurisdictions.

I have not heard from the Superintendent a request or recommendation to shift to all virtual.

The public work session on July 21 will host the Health Department Director in an effort to hear information we’ve requested, to help the Board inform its decision making and the division’s work. At least one Member has voiced intention of asking for a virtual start. Since the meeting is a “work session”, I plan to work – that is, to hear information and deliberate with my colleagues. If a vote is to be made on changing our plan, this should happen no sooner than at the Thursday, July 23, public meeting so a vote can be advertised to you prior. That’s being transparent.

Now I’d like to provide greater context of where we are.

In Virginia, school boards are being asked to make public health decisions about a global pandemic.

On July 14, I listened to Governor Northam say in his press briefing – twice – that the decision to close or open schools for in-person instruction is squarely on the shoulders of local school boards. There is no “one-size-fits-all approach” for Virginia. Local school boards are to make the decision based on their local health data. The problem with this, however, is simple: We are not medical experts, and never possessed the capacity to gather, evaluate, and make decisions on public health data. To this day, without approval from the state, Virginia school boards can’t even decide to meet in-person or set our local school year calendar! But how to handle a pandemic? This – THIS – the state government says is entirely up to us.

What is available through the Virginia Department of Health is aggregated to protect personal information, which is the right thing to do, but this makes decision making aggregated as well for the School Board. We can’t make specific decisions with a generalized picture of what the impacts are.

Also last week, I listened to New York’s Governor Cuomo say in his press briefing that there is a state formula that will determine when it is safe to reopen schools. Accompanying that are state guidelines about *how* schools reopen. That is the basis for decision making that guides local elected school boards. Excellent.

Back on July 6, when our school division put in writing to the county government the specific health-related information and help we seek to be able to make informed, data-based decisions, the response from the county was that FCPS had already been provided this information on “numerous occasions” and that we should “please note” that the county has already provided “volumes of guidance”.

We wouldn’t be asking if we had what we needed.

What really stumps me, though, is how the county invests over 50% of our public tax dollars in our public schools, yet is placing this county-wide responsibility – which impacts the economy, no less – on the shoulders of our schools and 12-person school board. If you invested 50% in a project or business, or a house, wouldn’t you want to help maintain your investment, and help it through rough times? I sure would. I’d be all over that. Especially if failure of that effort was death.

Helping FCPS by providing clear public health support is not “managing” our schools, as I’ve heard from some county leadership. The entire weight of this is passed onto our school board of 12 people who are racking our brains to use available data, weigh the input and anxious cries from staff and the public, the science of how children best learn and the impact of trauma, and determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of Fairfax and area residents.

I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with you during this time – sharing as much information with you as I can. I know that many are so eager for information.

But I share this post now to be transparent about the following: our government systems in Virginia and nationally aren’t built for school boards and localities to handle this kind of a decision. And as much as I see ways to improve those systems, that doesn’t seem to be happening right now.

I have witnessed FCPS staff repeatedly bring creativity and stamina to find workable solutions. FCPS is even close to offering childcare to its teachers so that’s not a barrier to returning to work! Something that wasn’t even available pre-COVID has been created! Please just think about that for a moment.

However, as existed before COVID, the same problems (of our making or not) that gnawed at us then, gnaw at us now. The most basic example I can think of about how school divisions have been left on our own to just about every aspect of caring for our children, is that we ask families or staff to purchase tissues, hand sanitizers, and cleaning wipes each school year. I can’t reconcile that we can be prepared for a pandemic if we – and I include the county government – haven’t been able to furnish these items. It’s not for lack of wanting to provide them, it’s because of public education’s constant battle with prioritizing needs with available resources.

For those who are anguished, I hear your advocacy. I worry greatly that this process of making a choice about the coming school year has caused immense anxiety and trauma for our students, families, and staff. I worry that this will linger.

I want my own two children to attend school – I enrolled them for the hybrid option. But I can’t in good conscience send them or anyone else’s children to school – or parent or spouse or friend to work – if I can’t use data about COVID cases and spread to justify that decision. I’m seeking the data and measures I can use to reasonably make a decision.

I also want to acknowledge that there are some who have made this decision without as much strife and despair. And there are many people whom I haven’t heard from due to barriers of advocacy know-how and language. I communicate with school principals to help inform me about those I’m not yet engaging.

While this post doesn’t have the answers you may want, I do hope it helps with understanding the complexity of the situation and who is trying to do what.”