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F.C. School Board Votes Unanimously To End School Year Early on June 4

PRINCIPALS of the Falls Church City Public School system’s five schools were in on the virtual School Board meeting, along with the board’s members, Tuesday night. (Photo: News-Press)

Among a mountain of important issues deriving from the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the Falls Church City Public Schools’ educational mission this spring, after a three-hour virtual, online-only meeting Tuesday night the F.C. School Board voted unanimously to adopt Superintendent Peter Noonan’s request to officially move up the end of the school year from June 17 to June 4. It was done given the cancellation of and revisions to many of the year-end student standards of learning (SOL), International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement tests and evaluations and the need to prepare for a more robust online summer session.

Noonan said a decision will be made tomorrow, Friday, on the grading system for the spring semester, with a pass/fail option being considered.

Noonan stressed that all George Mason High School students who were on target to graduate when Governor Ralph Northam ordered all Virginia schools closed on March 13 will graduate in June, and that working with students, plans are being developed for a “suitable celebration” of “such a great milestone” in the lives of the students and an opportunity for caps and gowns and the turning of tassels to occur for all graduates, even if restricted to some virtual online format, given the ongoing “social distancing” requirements needed to limit the pandemic.

The School Board Tuesday also voted to turn Friday, April 24, into a teacher planning day. Also, following spring break vacation running from April 4 through April 12, there will be a teacher planning day prior to the resumption of online classes at all levels of the system on Tuesday, April 14. Then, a new learning plan now under development will be introduced.

Noonan stressed that in all the challenges involved under the circumstances, that it will always be important that students come first, are given the “benefit of the doubt,” and that no harm will come to them from the unprecedented circumstances of the current situation.

The decision will be made Friday, Noonan said, about grading for the spring semester, and that a pass-fail option may be adopted, or a combination of pass-fail and letter grades. He said that a pass-fail grade will have no impact on a student’s grade-point average and that it contrasts with other Virginia systems, like Fairfax County’s, that have taken up the option granted by the state to simply mark no grades at all for the semester.

Noonan stressed that with this pandemic “everyone is in the same boat,” regarding the impact of the spring semester on student admissions to colleges and universities, including those colleges and universities themselves, as “everyone is scrambling to figure out what to do.”

Noonan noted that the systems’ food services division provided 130 boxes with a two-weeks supply of food to families of all students in the free and reduced meals program, and that the Falls Church Education Foundation provided 230 $50 gift cards to all those families, as well. He said the foundation just authorized an expenditure of another $14,000 for another round of gift cards and that the state is planning to provide benefit debit cards to families of students in need, as well.

It was announced Tuesday that the schools’ continuing food aid program be extended to any families in the system with needs and that families should apply Wednesday and pick up a week’s supply of breakfasts and lunches Friday from Thomas Jefferson Elementary or George Mason High.

The impact of the current crisis on the school budget is expected to be severe, Noonan suggested, with the state already announcing a $1 billion revenue shortfall and the City of F.C. pausing its budget deliberations for 30 days to see what its revenues may be looking like. Noonan said emergency federal relief funds provide currently only $25,000 to the City schools.
But the City schools are teaming with other smaller school districts in an effort to persuade the relevant authorities to adjust the formula that has led to that number.

The Falls Church School System came up for some national attention this week for its creative response to the current crisis, singled out in the Education Policy Blog in an article entitled, “Adjusting to the New Normal in Education” for its “online system of wrap around supports for students, including mental health services.” In the Apptegy online resource, the system’s “school closure learning plan” was singled out.

Tuesday’s virtual online meeting was chaired by Greg Anderson, and all members of the board, as well as key staff personnel, were connected with video feeds from their homes. A colorful variety of home backgrounds were on display and only one pet wandered into a scene, only very briefly.

The meeting was broken into three segments dealing with instruction, the community, and operations. In the first segment, the goal was identified as “keeping the learning in Falls Church going” in a circumstance “for which there is no playbook.” Noonan said, “We’ve been successful so far.”

There are briefings with the Virginia Department of Education every Tuesday and Friday, and F.C. staff “meetings” also Tuesdays and Fridays, while there is a pow-wow with all the five F.C. school principals and Noonan daily. There has been more communication, it was suggested, than before all this, including between the schools and the City government.

The new learning plan being devised for after spring break will have as its guidelines “doing what is reasonable, manageable and meaningful,” in the context of timing, given all major assessment tests cancelled, reduced or waived for the spring (no SOL’s, no “seated assessments” for the IB program, and 45 minute exams online for AP students), and pressures on support staffs to manage at home where they are often dealing with their own children there, as well.

“Our bar for all of this is our kids,” Noonan stressed. New instruction beginning on April 14 will include both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, being either live or recorded for later use. For privacy purposes, students in virtual online classrooms always retain the ability to cut off their cameras, he noted.

With the student school year ending June 4 (and the teachers’ June 5), the month-long summer session, free to all City of Falls Church students, will commence on July 6, anticipating more students than in the past, and the beginning of the next new regular school year will begin on Aug. 24.

The Director of Instruction William Bates discussed the grading and scoring options, saying the focus will be on “fair and equitable policies that serve all students well” with “no negative implications” for the decisions made.

Noonan said that while the Virginia Department of Education ruled that school systems could simply issue no grades at all for the semester, as was the choice taken by the neighboring Fairfax School System, “our expectations are different and we are inclined to think outside the box,” an advantage coming from the system’s small size. The final decision on grading will be announced tomorrow, he said.

The new post-spring break learning plan will include two hours a day available for teacher conferences with students and the use of “standards, templates and models” for online instruction. The principals of all five schools in the system, Jessie Thackrey Preschool, Mt. Daniel Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle, and George Mason High School, took turns discussing the unique challenges for students at each of their grade levels.

Paul Swanson, principal at Thomas Jefferson, stressed that the situation is presenting teachers “with really hard work.” Matt Hills, principal of George Mason High, said response to the new situation is designed to “provide students with an opportunity to show their mastery.”

For ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students and teachers, an online application that provides three-way conference calls with real time translations is in service, Dr. Jennifer Santiago explained.

Noonan said that, in accordance with a mandate from Gov. Northam, the City school sites are prepared to accept children of first responders in the current crisis, something that will be run if needed through the system’s daycare program, under conditions where a maximum of 10 persons per classroom is permitted and available for students from kindergarten through grade 6.

Noonan concluded the lengthy meeting saying, “We’ll get through this in a way that will be meaningful for all of us.”

Aired live on the schools’ YouTube channel Tuesday, the execution of the online meeting via Zoom was flawless and viewership peaked at just over 60.