News

Superintendent Now Wants Schools To Start Virtually

COMING ALONG nicely is the new high school, which is still on track to be completed in December. What’s still unknown is whether any students will be attending the school when it finally opens up at the end of the year. (Photo: FCCPS Photo/Seve Padilla)

Out of an abundance of caution in the midst of the current Covid-19 pandemic, F.C. Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan changed his mind this week and now wants everyone to stay home this fall when classes are due to resume Aug. 24.

In an exclusive interview with the News-Press Wednesday, Noonan said he’d notified a virtual all-schools staff meeting earlier that morning that recent developments have caused him to recommend the previous plans for hybrid teaching this fall be changed in favor of all-at-home virtual instruction.

The recommendation, which the School Board will act on at a special meeting Thursday, first came prior to a marathon meeting of the Fairfax County School Board Tuesday when a similar decision was made and following a move by the Arlington County Schools to do likewise announced earlier. Yesterday, Loudoun County schools also voted to go 100 percent virtual.

A statement was sent out to all students, parents and staff in the Falls Church system Wednesday. Noonan told the News-Press that he expects the School Board, in its meeting tonight, will concur based on the data underlying the decision.

“I’ve said all along that we need to remain flexible in our planning based on new information and data,” Noonan said. “This data includes numbers of teachers who are announcing intentions to apply for leave, absences or resignations.”

It also includes, he said, the new report from South Korea that school-aged children transmit the virus as readily as adults, and awareness that many F.C. teachers and other employees do not live in Falls Church but commute in from areas where the transmission rate is much higher than here.

Without providing a number, Noonan confirmed that there is a significant number of system employees who’ve tested positive for the virus and that they, plus numerous others who’ve been in contact with them and therefore must be quarantined as a precaution, represent a major concern. The number, he said, “is not insignificant.”

“Our number one concern is to make sure that our kids and staff are safe,” Noonan stressed, and that maintaining a consistent workforce, from teacher, to custodial, food service, busing and other components, is a vital part of that.

Noonan told the News-Press that he gained major clarity on these matters over “a tumultuous weekend,” when there was an overwhelming outpouring of concern from the public, the vast majority of whom wanted all-virtual instruction and no hybrid models.

This was in sharp contrast to an earlier poll by the school system, reported by Noonan at last week’s School Board meeting, which indicated a strong preference for a hybrid model based on the desire for students to be in contact with their peers in classroom settings.

DR. PETER NOONAN, the superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools, was influenced to change his stance on the school’s reopening plan after a ‘tumultuous weekend’ where there was a flood of concern over the City’s potential hybrid plan. (Screenshot: News-Press)

But a resurgence of the virus across the U.S., including in parts of Virginia (though not in Falls Church, according to the Fairfax Health Department, notwithstanding new cases among school and City, especially police, employees) and the results of the Korean study have led to a sudden but decisive change of heart.

As far as the fate of fall sports at the high school is concerned, that decision will be made by the Virginia High School League at its July 27 meeting, Noonan said (see news item on page 11).

Noonan stressed that as plans are made for all-virtual education this fall, “It will be very different this fall than last spring.”

There has been a lot of professional development of best practices over the summer, and attendance will be taken and grading will occur.

Daily schedules will also be published. “It will feel like school,” he said.

He said a major value of the fact the classes are being locally crafted is the fact that the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum that has been incorporated into all Falls Church schools, K-12, will be fully integrated into the teaching.

The online teaching will include some larger, live face-to-face classes and some individual work.

“Our biggest challenge is that we’re having to work all this out by ourselves with no leadership being provided from a higher level,” Noonan said.

He said that following the School Board meeting tonight, a comprehensive missive to all stakeholders will be sent out via email on Friday.

The following is the text of the statement that Noonan issued Wednesday:

“As Virginia continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, and with the health and safety of our students, families, staff, and community foremost in mind, tomorrow evening, I will make a recommendation that the School Board adopt a fully virtual start to the FCCPS 2020-21 school year. The Board is expected to discuss and take action on the recommendation at its meeting.

“With so much unknown about this virus and its transmission FCCPS does not want to put anyone at risk through in-person instruction. This virtual approach will begin August 24th and remain in place for at least the first nine weeks of school. We will remain online until we are confident of everyone’s safety in our classrooms, buses, and office spaces. Conditions will drive our decision making, not a timeline. Our commitment has always been to safety first, and we stand by that.

“While a change of this significance can seem daunting, FCCPS staff members are working hard to make this format mirror a true-school experience as much as possible. The virtual learning will differ from the “emergency learning model” adopted after the March closure. The 2020-21 virtual format will be rich, structured, and robust, including new learning and graded. It will be a well-articulated and coherent school program, with a well-defined schedule for every student.

“We pledge to keep you informed as we work together to engage all our children during this health crisis. We are grateful for your ongoing support. Our schools are working to provide the details you need. Everyone has lots of questions, but we are asking for your patience. We will be working on a new parent FAQ document to provide information about various topics related to the 100% online/virtual opening plan. Please help our principals and teachers/staff with their work by sending all questions to: reopening@fccps.org, not to your schools. We will be responsive and ensure those questions are answered in a timely fashion and forwarded to the staff who can support you with your inquiry.

“On Friday, following the School Board meeting, we will publish our routine Friday edition of the ‘Road to Reopening.’ This will be designed to help parents understand more fully what our models will look like at each level and give further information about the impacts this change has on online instruction generally. Thank you again for your dedication to our schools and your students during this unprecedented time in history. This is not where we imagined we would be a few weeks ago and recognize this is not the ideal situation for anyone, but the health and safety of all is paramount. We need your support now more than ever.”