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F.C. Schools Postpone Reopening Until 2021

FALLS CHURCH SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDANT Dr. Peter Noonan relays to the School Board some of the virus data that motivated his decision to keep schools closed. (Screenshot: News-Press)

Falls Church City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan announced in a statement Wednesday afternoon that there will be no in-person learning anywhere in the system between now and the first of January.

The news continues to worsen on the spread of the Covid-19 virus in this region, he said. “Unfortunately, the information has not changed from last week when we decided to take a one-week pause,” he said. “We remain in a ‘high’ rate of burden and have substantial disease transmission in our region.

“This is devastating news to all and is certainly not an easy decision to make or message to deliver,” he said. “We hoped that we would see improvements with the data that would move us back into the moderate range. That did not happen. In the end, we believe that moving the final two weeks of school prior to winter break online will allow us to recalibrate as a learning community and be prepared to return to school in January.”

At the School Board meeting Tuesday night, Noonan cautioned the board that data slated for posting yesterday morning might compel the decision. It turned out just that way with the daily numbers posted by the Fairfax Health Department at 10 a.m.

Noonan is in the unenviable position of every school superintendent in the entire nation who has to fend for his or herself on critical decisions such as school openings and closure methods or “risk mitigation strategies.”

Noonan noted Tuesday night despite the warnings of a new surge of Covid-19 cases nationwide, there is still no guidance coming from anywhere higher up about what to do. The same applies to all 132 school divisions in Virginia and for the U.S. as a whole as the federal government has been AWOL in terms of anything but providing raw data.

“I am outraged that we have had to go nine months without guidance. It is an untenable situation,” said board member Shawna Russell Tuesday night. School Board chair Greg Anderson conceded that it is a very “frustrating” situation.

It also applies to how the Virginia High School League will proceed with athletic competitions going forward. Noonan said that a letter by a dozen school superintendents to Billy Hahn, the executive director of the VHSL, urging all winter sports to be cancelled has drawn no response, meaning that as of press time, sports are “full steam ahead,” for the season just getting underway.

Noonan said that Mason High’s Director of Student Activities Marvin Wooten has been in touch with other divisions around the region where decisions would impact the current schedules for competition, including in Prince William, Rappahannock and Madison counties as well as Manassas Park in the City of Manassas.

For Falls Church CitySchools, athletics are optional but learning is not, Noonan said.

Also up in the air is the use of school facilities for the activities of the Falls Church Recreation and Parks Department.
Of concern, Noonan told the board Tuesday, is having the trust of the faculties of the schools.

Pressure to open too soon can result in distrust by the teachers in the decision making processes around opening.

“It starts from the standpoint that there are no 100 percent safe environments,” he said. “So far our risk mitigation strategies have been excellent with 90 percent compliance. But there has been a big jump in new cases in the last 9-10 days.”

There has been a 30 percent increase in infections per 100,000 in Falls Church, he noted.

In other School Board activity:

• The board will meet jointly with the Falls Church City Council next Monday in an annual joint session out of which budget guidance for the upcoming fiscal year will be discussed.

• Next Tuesday, the board is scheduled to vote on whether or not to change the name of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and/or George Mason High School following intensive discussions on the subject since June. A public hearing will be held prior to the vote.

In comments to the board Tuesday, member Russell said that comments noted online in social media and listserv posts since the results of a survey on the matter showed most favored keeping the current names, “were quite contentious and in some instances, downright upsetting.” In all the “whys” given for why people voted the way they did, she noted, “not one of them indicated any covert or overt racist overtones.”

• Board member Lawrence Webb announced his resignation from the board as of Jan. 1, and the board discussed the process for appointing a replacement early next year prior to the completion of his term in November 2021.