It’s official: FCCPS will begin the school year with virtual learning

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The School Board meets with other FCCPS officials over Zoom on their July 23 meeting, in which they passed a motion endorsing Superintendent Noonan's plan for entirely virtual learning for at least the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year. (Screenshot by Sequoia Wyckoff)

In a virtual School Board meeting on July 23, the board unanimously passed a motion endorsing FCCPS Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan’s recommendation for the first nine weeks of the school year to operate fully online.

The motion, as announced by board member Philip Reitinger, reads: “Given that recent events indicate that opening school in a hybrid model would pose undue risk for students, family, and staff, which must be our highest priority, the board supports and endorses the Superintendent’s recommendation that FCCPS open in online-only mode for most students, for at least the first 9 weeks, with flexibility to bring back special populations earlier as soon as circumstances and science allow.”

In a presentation to the board, Dr. Noonan explained the realities of the pandemic that led him to this recommendation, citing rising case numbers in Virginia, test processing delays, and the COVID-19 situation the school system faced over the summer. 

25% of FCCPS custodial staff has been “positive or been in quarantine” over the summer, according to Dr. Noonan. Additionally, he reported an increase in teacher resignations and leaves-of-absence requests over the past week. 

In the two weeks of in person, socially-distanced daycare that FCCPS provided this summer, which will revert back to virtual daycare next week, five out of 50 students were sent home for having a fever. Dr. Noonan also noted concerns over instances of parental dishonesty when reporting the health conditions of the students’ families. 

“Safety has been and will always be our primary drive,” read the first slide of his presentation, a sentiment that was echoed throughout the meeting.

For George Mason students, this online learning environment will not look like it did in the spring. Attendance will be mandatory, and there will be more structured, synchronous learning time on an alternating block schedule. A sample schedule and more details about the virtual start will be released by FCCPS on Friday, July 24, in the latest edition of Dr. Noonan’s letter, “Road to Reopening.”

Grading will not be pass/fail, as it was for last year’s fourth quarter due to equity and accessibility concerns. Instead, grading will operate just as it would if learning were face-to-face – a combination of percentage grades, and standards-based grading for rising ninth graders. 

Dr. Noonan emphasized efforts to build school culture and focus on the social-emotional well being of students, mentioning a plan for the first week of school that looks “less like school, more like a week of camp” and other plans for students to connect virtually with their classmates, friends, and teachers.

School Board members discussed at length their concerns about the effects virtual learning will have on special education students, who will receive extra support built into the new daily schedule. In her presentation, Executive Director of Special Education Rebecca Sharp explained what this support might look like, and made clear that special education students will be a high priority for a hybrid model in the future.

Dr. Noonan explained candidly that he did not know when a hybrid model would be possible, expressing a desire for better guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and other experts.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that we’re going to be in online education until we get to any kind of vaccine, I’m suggesting that we start online,” he told the board.

But the decision to move to a set of looser restrictions will only be made if certain criteria are met. These would include an increase in rapid, accurate COVID-19 testing and a significant reduction in case numbers in Virginia. However, if those parameters are not met within nine weeks, there is not likely to be a change.