On March 13, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak; and Governor Northam’s March 30 stay-at-home order has closed all schools in Virginia for the remainder of the academic year. While we have all exhausted the adjectives necessary to describe the coronavirus crisis in our nation, extended and unexpected school closures should be nothing new for FCPS. One month into the coronavirus outbreak, FCPS has left parents wondering why one of the “top school districts in the country” is failing to lead the way in distance learning.
Snowmaggedon: History Repeats
In 2010, the blizzard dubbed Snowmaggedon crippled Northern Virginia and resulted in FCPS losing ten days of school. That extended closure led many to call for plans for distance learning if such a catastrophic event were to ever happen again. But what planning has taken place over those ten years?
When formulating its plan for learning during this pandemic, the Board assumed that many homes only have one computer available, necessitating the alternating of instructional sessions by division (elementary, middle, and high school). However, limiting virtual class hours to 9:15-11:15 and 12:15-2:15 creates artificial bottlenecks for instruction. Why not try to create “shifts” where elementary students would be online in the morning; middle schoolers learn during the midday hours; and high schoolers participate in their classes in the late afternoon or evening hours? Or failing that, why not make lessons available for streaming on demand – thus allowing families to determine a schedule that works best for them? Why do teachers need all of Monday for planning? Why did FCPS still observe Spring Break? Difficult times call for creative solutions, not rote adherence to practices that don’t apply to the new paradigm.
One Fairfax: A Failed Policy
On November 20, 2017, the School Board adopted “a joint social and racial equity policy” called One Fairfax. This policy requires the Board to consider “equity” in the decision-making for all policies, programs, and services. As the Board struggles to provide identical access for all students, they are delaying educational instruction to all students. The Distance Learning Plan calls for instruction to resume on April 14, and will be limited to two days of direct, teacher-lead instruction, with just 45 minutes per class, per week.
Parents disappointed with the lack of academic content will search out any means available to foster their student’s education. Families that can afford private online programs and tuition-based homeschool curricula will pursue those options, and their children will continue to advance academically. Families who are not financially able to purchase the education their children need will fall behind.
Fairfax County ranks as the 11th largest public school system in the United States, with over 188,000 students currently enrolled. Our student population presents a tremendous challenge, but FCPS has had ample time to train teachers and staff in the implementation of virtual meeting technologies, which are very easy to use. All FCPS high school students were issued laptops at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year as part of the FCPSOn initiative. That portion of the student population should have been immediately ready for distance learning. The primary challenge to distance learning is home Internet access. Every school year, parents are required to fill out FCPS’s Emergency Care form, which includes a question about the type of Internet access in the home and whether or not the family has “a device for this student that meets their educational needs.” On Day 1 of this crisis, FCPS should have known exactly how many students lacked access to the Internet and distance learning technologies.
FCPSOn: Wasted Dollars
A central requirement of the FCPSOn initiative is that all high school students have a laptop issued by Fairfax County. Parents and students are not allowed to “opt out” and purchase their own laptop. Why not? The money saved by allowing students to provide their own laptops would have allowed FCPS to purchase and distribute the crucial wireless routers for Internet access that are currently the main issue stalling the Distance Learning Plan.
When FCPS finally implements the Distance Learning Plan on April 14, students will have had a four-week gap in their academic instruction. After two weeks of FCPS planning, students will only receive a total of 8 hours of instruction per week, and any grades for the 4th Quarter will be Pass/Fail only. This is unquestionably the most difficult challenge our county schools have ever faced. However, smarter planning by the Board and staff, wiser allocation of funds, and better utilization of technology should allow us to manage the delivery of education more successfully.
The One Fairfax quest for “equity” is resulting in mediocrity.