On June 23, 2020, the Fairfax County School Board of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system met and agreed upon a plan to deliver educational instruction to the 189,000 students of Fairfax County for the 2020 – 2021 school year, which is scheduled to begin on August 25, 2020. This plan is radically different than anything the county has ever seen, as it has been challenged by the effects of 2020’s novel coronavirus. The Board is giving parents two options for returning to school: an online-only option or a partial in-person option combined with a virtual learning environment.
FCPS plans to administer the online-only option to children in grades K-12 by providing educational instruction in a 5-day school week. The plan is to offer four days a week of virtual synchronous learning, which means live teacher-led instruction with students simultaneously logged in and actively participating. The fifth day is set aside for offline asynchronous learning, which gives students the opportunity to work independently.
At the elementary school level, FCPS teachers will provide between 2.5 – 3.5 hours of daily synchronous instruction to students in language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and health. Teachers will provide synchronous instruction to middle school students for approximately 3 hours per week, per subject area. Synchronous instruction for high school students is not clearly set forth; the instruction model will vary depending on enrollment in core classes or electives.
FCPS carefully noted its intention to deliver synchronous instruction to elementary and middle school students based on the cohort model which includes students from the same school. By contrast, synchronous instruction for high school students will not be provided by the cohort model, but will include instruction from teachers from their base school plus virtual learning from additional sources.
Any parent who chooses the online-only option is required to keep their children in a virtual learning environment for the entire school year, irrespective of whether school buildings are permitted to open. In addition, FCPS expects parents to support their children’s active participation in online learning and complete required activities, such as annual state-mandated educational assessments in core areas.
Partial In-Person Option (Combined with a Virtual Learning Environment)
Parents may also choose to allow their children to engage in learning at the physical school buildings as a partial in-person option, which is supplemented by a virtual learning environment. This option allows students to receive in-person instruction at schools for a minimum of two days per week, with the other two days at home in a virtual learning environment.
FCPS is restricting access to school buildings to students and instructional staff only and ensuring a 6-foot distance between students and staff as much as possible. Visitors will not be allowed to enter school buildings. FCPS plans to allow students to ride school buses and enter school grounds using established health protocols and social distancing measures already in place by the state. School buses will have new limited-capacity seating arrangements.
FCPS plans to require caregivers to complete health screening forms each day a child is scheduled to ride a school bus or enter school grounds. This is to ensure the child is asymptomatic and has not been exposed to anyone who has had COVID-19. Depending on how many parents select the partial in-person option, FCPS may have to develop a schedule that offers at-school instruction on rotating days to accommodate those who prefer this option while still complying with physical distancing requirements.
FCPS specifically noted it may have to adjust the quantity of students it is able to serve with the in-person option depending on public health data of coronavirus cases or new infection rates.
Enrollment Letters and Updates
FCPS is sending enrollment letters to parents and asking them to indicate their preference between the online-only option or the option to receive partial in-person instruction combined with complementary instruction in a virtual learning environment by July 10, 2020. FCPS will continue updating its policies regarding delivery of educational instruction throughout the summer.
According to FCPS Director of News and Information, Lucy H. Caldwell, FCPS believes many parents will choose the full-time online-only option. “In our initial surveys, roughly, 42 percent of parents said they wanted virtual instruction…Parents and staff expressed that they wanted choices- we worked with a task force to provide options that would allow parents/staff to choose what works best for them, given that we are following state and local health guidance.”
To better understand how FCPS arrived at its present status of choosing between in-person and online-only educational instruction, it is good to review a brief history of all that has happened since March 2020.
The Coronavirus Changes Everything
The year 2020 has been unlike other years in modern history, bringing about a deadly sweep of a new virus, COVID-19. By early March, the effects of the coronavirus started getting serious; infection rates were at alarming heights, causing a global public health crisis. By mid-March, the fear of getting the coronavirus began causing a domino-effect of closures from public schools to small businesses to restaurants to everything in-between.
On March 12, 2020, FCPS played it safe by announcing school would be canceled for two days. Unsure of the long-term effects of COVID-19, FCPS released additional information over that following weekend, extending the period of school cancellation for almost two weeks. On March 23, 2020, parents were stunned to receive news from Virginia governor Ralph Northam ordering full closure of all public schools for the remainder of the school year.
During the month that followed, FCPS announced it would provide two tracks of continuing education to its 189,000 students while the physical school buildings remained closed. They proposed offering online synchronous learning for two days each week, with the other two days intended for offline asynchronous learning. Fridays were reserved for teacher workdays.
Given the challenges of the coronavirus forcing things to be canceled or closed, FCPS bravely weathered the storm with its suggested synchronous and asynchronous distance learning objectives. Unfortunately, implementation of distance learning hit major bumps in the road early on. FCPS used Blackboard Learn (FCPS 24-7), a proprietary software solution developed by Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard, Inc., to deliver online distance learning. The system was riddled with security holes and caused disruptions to its student users.
Challenges with Online Learning
The central issue appeared to be that this was the first time FCPS rolled out a virtual learning software program for all 189,000 students to use simultaneously. Technical glitches took virtual learning offline, essentially forcing students to continue distance learning on their own. Students continued to learn during those uncertain times strictly through asynchronous means, by working on distance learning paper packets and accessing other FCPS-approved educational resources.
While FCPS’s Department of Information Technology worked with the vendor around the clock to fix the technical issues, delays in reinstituting Blackboard Learn (FCPS 24-7) caused parents to be angry. Emails, letters, and phone calls of protest made it to the Office of the Superintendent. The problems with the software came to a head on April 22, 2020, when then-Assistant Superintendent for the Department of Information and Technology, Maribeth Luftglass, resigned from her position.
Immediately thereafter, synchronous online distance learning resumed with a different Blackboard, Inc. software program, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, which gave teachers the chance to provide live instruction with students logged into their respective classrooms. FCPS managed to finish off the school year successfully by providing glitch-free synchronous and asynchronous distance learning to its students until the last official day of instruction, which was June 11, 2020.
Even though the online distance learning instruction did not proceed as planned in the spring of 2020, FCPS is confident things will be smoother in the fall. As per Ms. Caldwell, “The technical challenges were addressed by our staff, in collaboration with Blackboard. We also ended up encouraging teaching staff to use Google Meets in addition to Blackboard Collaborate to engage with students for distance learning.”
To date, FCPS has not filled Maribeth Luftglass’ position with the Department of Information and Technology, but they have been working with the new Superintendent’s Technology Advisory Council to explore how to better process information security issues with FCPS leadership.
FCPS parents are encouraged to keep abreast of ongoing developments with the plans to return to school by participating in Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s virtual town hall meeting on July 6 and by reviewing the back-to-school FAQs which will be updated as more information becomes available: https://www.fcps.edu/return-school/return-school-questions-and-answers.