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Principals Confident In F.C. Schools’ Virtual Start

PAUL SWANSON, principal at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, has worked well with Mt. Daniel Elementary principal Timothy Kasik to streamline learning for students. (Screenshot: News-Press)

The principals of all the Falls Church City public schools were upbeat participating in the virtual F.C. School Board meeting Tuesday night, giving individual reports on how all the proper preparations are in order for the commencement of the new school year in less than two weeks now. The Monday, Aug. 24 launch will be entirely virtually in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

While rates of infections and transmissions remain low in Falls Church and its immediate environs, it’s a much different story not too far from here, and since many employees of the system live out of this immediate area, it was out of an abundance of caution last month that Superintendent Peter Noonan and the School Board decided to abandon a “hybrid” teaching plan this fall in favor of an all virtual one, at least into the first week of October.

Timothy Kasik, principal of Mt. Daniel Elementary, offered that the level of collaboration within the overall system is “better than ever” despite the limitations everybody’s faced with. He said the close collaboration with Paul Swanson, principal at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, has been extraordinary to develop a seamless learning context.

Matt Hills, principal of George Mason High, said the same sort of things about his work with Valerie Hardy, principal of Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. They both noted that as the new Mason High building approaches completion by December, they have more in common than ever, working on a common “campus” that includes them both.

Noonan said that achieving a “commonality across grades” provides “instructional redundancy” that enables the continuation of education even if a particular teacher were to get sick.

Utilizing more of a team approach has led them all “to think differently about instruction,” Hills said.

New employee orientation for the system’s 28 new hires took place Monday and Tuesday of this week, and the full staff will be back for online training today (Thursday).

Class schedules are slated to “go live” Friday, Aug. 14, and next Tuesday there will be the usual system-wide Convocation, although it will be done entirely online this time.

The system’s Chief Academic Officer William Bates said that all the teachers “want the students to thrive and won’t allow the current situation to get in the way of that.”

The theme of the Convocation will be “It’s Always the Right Time to Do the Right Thing,” a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s appropriate for this year of heightened challenges, including in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, that Superintendent Noonan said will be the theme to leverage for the entire school year.

As the school year approaches, Noonan said that the system will rejoin the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch program that includes an a la carte pricing menu for adults. He said that another round of gift cards to families in need have been distributed as part of the Friday food box deliveries compliments of the Falls Church Education Foundation.

Noonan said there have been a “handful” of employees granted one-year leaves of absence, and there may be a “handful” more. He said that all the system employees will be retained and repurposed from bus driving, custodial and food service functions to other roles, many pertaining to preparations for the move to the new high school come December.

He said that contrary to other views, the Falls Church system employees all “want our kids back more than anything,” and he’s been in ongoing consultations with the Virginia Department of Health, the Fairfax County Health Department, which oversees Falls Church, so that “anything we do is done safely and transparently.”

Instruction beginning Aug. 24 will take into account social, emotional and mental health needs of students. Countering the notion that students will be sitting at a computer for six hours a day, “we will be developmentally responsible,” Noonan said.

Marie Baroody, director of the Jesse Thackrey Preschool, said that the year will begin with 10 to 20 minute teacher introductions and use of lots of puppets and songs.

Kasik of Mt. Daniel said there will be a “Meet the Teacher” event on Aug. 20, where there will be 1-on-1 online sessions with students and all classes will be recorded to review.

Swanson of Jefferson Elementary stressed the work that has gone into synchronizing with Mt. Daniel toward a seamless K-5 educational experience with a mix of live synchronous and taped asynchronous teaching. “We’re in a pretty good place,” he said, crediting his “fantastic staff.”

At Henderson, Hardy stressed the importance of “embedding social and emotional learning” into the online programs, with an hour beginning at 11 a.m. to be an all student-all teacher learning block, and an hour beginning at 9 a.m. to be a daily “enrichment time.”

Special education services chief Rebecca Sharp noted the special programs the Falls Church system has been able to provide that much larger systems have not been able to.

The ESOL program’s Dr. Jenn Santiago cited the instance of the middle school student-led Social Justice Club that is reviewing age appropriate books to identify for younger students to think about.

Tuesday’s meeting opened with the election by a unanimous vote of George Mason High student Elisabeth Snyder as the new student representative on the School Board.