The doctors are here to advise. Public health experts Dr. Travis Gayles and Dr. Leana Wen join us to share their expertise and answer your essential questions.
When the coronavirus shuttered schools in March, local school districts made the transition to distance learning. Now, school boards are preparing for an uncertain fall. Fairfax County Public Schools, which struggled with distance learning this spring, is now asking families to choose between completely virtual learning or a hybrid model.
But the plan has received pushback from teachers and parents about its lack of specifics. And local teachers unions are concerned that returning to in-person teaching could put school employees’ health at risk.
We’ll hear what’s happening in Fairfax County and take a look at how other school districts are preparing for the fall.
Produced by Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo for Kids, acclaimed children's author Sharon Draper joins us. But first, school districts in the region are struggling to figure out how, when and whether to return to in-person learning this fall. Most have yet to announce their plans, but Fairfax County Public Schools said last week that they're giving parents a choice, a hybrid of in-person and online or fully distance learning. Some teachers are pushing back against that plan. Joining us now is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you so much for joining us.
DEBBIE TRUONGThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs school districts prepare for the fall, Debbie, and decide whether to continue distance learning or do some classes in-person what considerations do they have to make?
TRUONGYeah, so, of course, there's the public health considerations, you know, balancing the need for reducing the spread of the coronavirus with the sort of adverse effects that we've seen on students away from school for such a long period of time. You know, we've seen how the time away from school has affected their social and emotional development and we've seen the consequences on student learning. And, you know, once school systems do decide that they want to reopen schools they have to think about what schools will look like, because it's going to be much different than it was before schools closed. They have to think about what classrooms will look like, how to space desks apart, how to make sure that social distancing guidelines are practiced in school buildings.
NNAMDIWhat have you heard about D.C. public school's plans for the fall?
TRUONGYeah, so D.C. public schools hasn't yet said what classes will look like in the fall, if they will be in-person or virtual or a mix of both. But D.C. is in the second phase of its reopening, which means that schools can reopen in a limited capacity. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Louis Ferebee has said that students could return to class in August for a two week summer program and that program would be limited to rising third, sixth and ninth graders. And that program would also, you know, require that no more than 12 people are in a classroom at a time, and that adults and children wear face masks.
NNAMDIWhat about our neighboring counties in Maryland and elsewhere in Northern Virginia?
TRUONGYeah, so several school systems are still surveying parents and have not released, you know, their plans or proposals for returning back to school in the fall. Fairfax County, which is the largest county in Virginia, has the largest school system in the state approved a plan that would allow families to choose between two options. The first would allow full online instruction for four days a week were parents could send their children to school for two days a week and then spend two days of learning at home. And, you know, students would alternate days on when they would attend class in-person. Those plans call for, you know, spacing desks six feet apart. Parents will also have to fill out a form each day confirming that their child doesn't have symptoms of COVID-19 and hasn't been exposed to anyone who has.
TRUONGAnd I think, you know, as more school systems come out with their plans in the next weeks or months, you'll see a lot of the same hybrid plans that have some mix of in-person and at-home instruction with the option for parents to keep their children at home.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Shawna Garrett, Vice President of Outreach for the Fairfax County PTA. Shawna Garrett, thank you for joining us.
SHAWNA GARRETTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhat can you tell us about the plan for Fairfax County Public Schools for the fall? And what factors did the Board weigh in coming to this decision?
GARRETTAs Ms. Truong stated, it's multifaceted. They've got the hybrid version and the virtual options. The biggest factors that are being considered stem from CDC and Fairfax County Health Department guidelines.
NNAMDIOkay. So what has been the response from parents?
GARRETTThe biggest response from parents is that there are still more questions than answers and they're not necessary feeling ready to make those decisions on whether they want their children to be in the hybrid or the 100 percent virtual option until more of those questions are answered.
NNAMDII know the school district doesn't have all the answers at this point. The plan is to send out more details in the coming weeks, but what are some of the questions you are getting?
GARRETTSome of them revolve around equity making sure students' needs are met whether they're students that receive special education services or in our advance academic program. There's questions about our immersion programs and how the two different formats will affect those. And then additionally how the school system plans to make sure classrooms are clean and sanitized for students each day, and if it's realistic to expect our students to wear face masks for seven hours a day.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Kimberly Adams, President of the Fairfax Education Association. Kimberly Adams, thank you for joining us.
KIMBERLY ADAMSThanks, Kojo. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIThe Fairfax Education Association has been working with the county's reopening schools taskforce on the school districts' plans for the fall. But your union along with two other Fairfax County unions are not completely satisfied with this decision and you're asking union members to clearly state their preference for continued 100 percent virtual learning, why?
ADAMSWell, we know that a lot of our members are also parents in the system and have similar concerns as Shawna stated that we are really concerned about our own family's well-being. Of course, we return to work and we will be there four days week, some of us five days a week with a variety of groups of students in and out of our classrooms. So our risk is significantly higher and we want to make sure that our professionals know that they can take that option for virtual learning if they feel it's going to be the best option for their family.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that the county is seeking input from both families of students and school employees, but if a lot of families opt for the hybrid in-person model, would that force teachers and employees back to school even if they're uncomfortable doing that?
ADAMSUnfortunately it will. The student enrollment is what's going to drive the decision making around staffing up our school buildings. And that will determine which applicants for the virtual learning will be prioritized. And it's likely to be based on their personal health needs, whether they themselves are at risk. And then their family members' health needs, whether they have someone living immediately at home with them at-risk, and then after that other options around are you over 65? Do you have childcare needs? And do you have just a healthy fear of this virus and what it might do?
NNAMDIThe way the hybrid model is now designed students would be split into two groups. Each group would have two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual learning, but would that mean that teachers and school staff have to be there four days a week?
ADAMSCorrect, Kojo. Four days a week at least and in some cases five depending on the need for in-person instruction or in-person meetings and trainings, so seeing all those students and in some cases teachers, who teach multiple courses throughout the day seeing every group of students over the course of the four or five days.
NNAMDILet's see what our callers have to say about this. We'll start with George in Fall Church, Virginia. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEYes. Good afternoon. Thanks for having me. I guess roughly two quick questions, one for each of your members. First is, I guess, to the teacher association president. As you see in the media it says that the FCTS leadership, I guess, said that the teachers were consulted in this task force. And I guess can you answer if there was something voted on by this task force that was presented to the school board or was this hybrid or options for parents just something that the superintendent crafted to present to the board.
GEORGEBecause I think people need to know if there is a difference. And then to the parent rep, from the parent's perspective, you know, I'm a member of my PTA for many many years and also PTSA. There are differences. Are the individual PTA units voting on these options what's best for parents or is this just being determined by FCPTA what's best for parents?
NNAMDIFirst you, Shawna Garrett.
GARRETTSo we are consulting in the task force based on surveys that parents have completed both from Virginia State PTA that help guide us in utilizing the position statements that we establish as the PTA. And our position is more serving as that voice and trying to make sure that they're considering all of our parents versus we are not involved in the actual decision making process.
NNAMDIThen you, Kimberly Adams.
ADAMSI would add a little bit of that that we certainly -- although we've been present in task force meetings and have been given opportunities to give input. We certainly didn't have a vote on the different plans that came forward. And we still feel like we've given input that hasn't necessarily been taken into consideration on these plans. And we continue to push forward on thoughts and ideas around things such as health screenings being done at bus stops and other issues that just haven't been resolved.
NNAMDIHere is Dawn in Fairfax, Virginia. Dawn, your turn.
DAWNHi, Kojo. I want to say that I have two high school kids, and they have no interest in distance learning. And I also have two distance elementary school kids. One is a special needs child, and it's really disheartening to think that they would be benefited by having to go to school two hours a week on a computer they don't even know how to use.
NNAMDIThey don't know how to use the computer is what you're saying?
DAWNYes. They don't know how to use the computer. We have to sit there with them.
NNAMDIAnd they'd rather be in school?
DAWNOf course, they'd rather be in school. They need the socialization. They need the touch feel tactile palpation. They need to be able to see things, feel things.
NNAMDIOkay. Debbie Truong, you've heard from students across the region about how distance learning has been for them. Do their concerns echo those of Dawn? What do you think of their concerns about virtual learning versus in-person learning in the fall?
TRUONGYeah, I mean, I certainly think that they are in line with what Dawn has shared. I mean, I think COVID-19 has, you know, exposed the inequalities and inequities that existed in our educational system. You know, at the beginning not all students had access to a laptop or the internet at home. So schools and community organizations really had to sort of step up and provide those. And it took time for those devices to get into students' hands. And that, of course, delayed students learning. For students, who are enrolled in special education and require ...
NNAMDIYou only have about 20 seconds left.
TRUONGA lot specialized instruction, you know, being in classes is very helpful. And then I've talked to students ...
NNAMDIOkay. I got to cut you off because we have to take a short break, but when we come back we'll continue this conversation with Debbie Truong, Shawna Garrett and Kimberly Adams. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about schools reopening in the region with a focus on Fairfax County. We're talking with Kimberly Adams, President of the Fairfax Education Association. Shawna Garrett is the Vice President of Outreach for the Fairfax County PTA. And Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, I had to interrupt you. Do you want to finish that sentence?
TRUONGYeah, I was just going to say that, you know, I also spoke (unintelligible) who had access to resources. But who felt so stressed and anxious that they couldn't find the motivation to do their online assignments on time or at all. I think for some students they're eager to return to be around their peers and be in a more structured environment. But at the same time I've heard from students, who are concerned not about their own health, but the health of family members. They're scared about getting sick and then getting a grandparent sick.
NNAMDIHere now is Aileen in Salisbury, Maryland. Aileen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AILEENHi there, Kojo. I'm in Salisbury. I'm in Eastern Shores, Maryland and we have a wonderful superintendent here. But we have only received a short quite vague survey from our county. So we really haven't had any input, and we haven't had any news about what's happening. But my main (unintelligible) as a parent thinking about my child going back to school, he'll be in second grade at our local elementary school. I am worried about basically his social situation.
AILEENAnd so we want to have our kids back in school, but this is to me an opportunity to have the smaller class that we've always wanted. And so in my mind what would be a hybrid where it's a few days a week and (unintelligible) immediate family. And it's just sort of like a pod where they're exposed to those children. So it minimizes the risk. But they now have to wear masks.
AILEENThey also need running water in the classroom, which my child has never had. He's never been able to wash his hands, and they need to go open the windows. So I'm wondering why our county isn't working on making sure that all of our windows can open, and also maybe the HVAC system. I know there's going to be possibly some money coming in from the federal government for these kind of safety things.
NNAMDIAnd what county are you in, Aileen?
AILEENI'm in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
NNAMDIOkay. I don't know if Debbie Truong has been looking at that county. Have you, Debbie?
TRUONGNo. But I think that those, you know, concerns are very valid. Even before COVID-19, the coronavirus, the pandemic, schools across the country struggled with delayed maintenance, and given all of this additional health and safety considerations that we have to now take into account. It's certainly going to be a challenge to figure out where that money is going to come from and how schools can, you know, adjust their school buildings in such a short amount of time.
NNAMDIWe heard from Karen from Bowie, Maryland, who called but couldn't stay on the line. Karen says, "I know many teachers who if forced back into the classroom will find another job." Shawna Garret, will online learning follow the regular school day?
GARRETTMy understanding is that it will be an enhanced distance learning program different with more instruction than what they had in the spring, but as far as the specific outline of what the schedule would look like, we have not heard that yet.
NNAMDIWhat about instruction? How closely can the district follow its previously planned curriculum given all that's going on?
GARRETTAgain, we don't have exact details. I know they're working on it and looking at adjusting the curriculum to make sure that it covers what was missed this final quarter in school and moving forward.
NNAMDIHere is Claudia in Fairfax, Virginia. Claudia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAUDIAHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. This is a comment and a question to follow up on the previous comment about inequality. And my concern is what about the ones who do not have the help at home, the students who help them navigate the online learning? What about the kids whose parents are working two jobs and who have no one to watch them during the time that they're at home? What about those families, those students?
NNAMDIIndeed. We got an email from Jane in Vienna who says, "Fairfax County parents are lucky in that we have a choice for how our children will attend school next year, but working parents, who choose the online option are still trapped in an impossible situation. Where is the business community? Have employers let their employees know that they'll be flexible whenever possible?" Any understanding about whether that's going to happen, Shawna Garrett?
GARRETTThere's not, and we encourage the same thing. We want to see the collaboration among all stakeholders. You know, childcare and things are not the sole responsibility of the school system, but we do realize that we're that center of the community and we need to be working with community and we need to be working with community organizations and our business leaders to make sure we're meeting the needs of all of our families and the staff in the school system.
NNAMDIKimberly Adams, Fairfax County like all school systems in our region had to quickly transition to virtual learning this spring. And like other school districts you hit some road bumps in rolling out the technology and shifting the students' curriculums. How will teachers approach the fall differently?
ADAMSAbsolutely. A big question is how will we manage our online learning and our online platforms better than we did in the spring? We are assured that that is one issue that the superintendent is working closely with his tech council on. We have not yet heard if we'll be piloting something further in more schools than was originally planned for Schoology a different platform. We certain expect to still be using Blackboard and probably likely also using Google platforms as well, expecting to have a more robust curriculum, but also expecting to have more hours of contact with our students.
ADAMSSome teachers actually felt like the one to two hours wasn't enough for them to get what they needed to their students. And felt like they were struggling to manage that afterwards through their office hours. And hoping that this time around we'll have a little more contact with our students to create those social skills and being able to work on how we connect even though it's virtually.
NNAMDIHere is Todd in Vienna, Virginia. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TODDKojo, thank you. First of all, FCPS teachers have done fabulous. It is the board that has failed. So my first question is why have none of them had the decency to resign. Many schools in the area were launched the following week virtually successfully. It took them six weeks to launch it and become a national embarrassment. So that's my first question. Second, why did they launch a so called parent input survey when they had already presented reopening options? It seems as though the survey was designed for their benefit, not parent input. Why did that survey not include a 100 percent reopening option, granted health concerns may make that non-feasible? But we were not asked and that should have advised the conversation.
TODDWhen will FCPS release the full raw data set anatomized so we can review it. FCPS has blown trust for the parent community here. We deserve to see the full data. And that data should also include results by school. Pyramid based results may help them. It does not help parents understand the decisions they making in the community. Thank you.
NNAMDICare to comment, Shawna Garrett?
GARRETTI think the best thing is that his comments are very valid. We support that. We've heard that as well from other parents, and I think it just supports that we need more answers and we need more transparency on what the plan is.
NNAMDIShawna Garrett, what about digital divide? What has Fairfax done to address that issue?
GARRETTThey have purchased -- or continued and approve to move on the FCPS on program down through middle schools. And my understanding is that they are going to continue to look at moving it into elementary to try and ensure that students have those devices.
NNAMDIOn now to Margaret in Arlington, Virginia. Margaret, we don't have a lot of time left, but go ahead.
MARGARETOkay, sure. So first I had just as comment as to why I voted for in-person schooling this coming fall, which was I've got two kids in Arlington elementary and middle. And we had a pretty bad experience with the distance learning we had this past spring. Had we had a great experience I probably would be in favor of a hybrid or all virtual. And then my question is has anyone considered a full year school calendar, because we're going to have such reduced hours this coming fall?
NNAMDIDebbie Truong, you know anything about that?
TRUONGI don't know of any local school systems, who have put forth a proposal for a year round calendar. But, you know, there are conversations happening about how schools are going to make up the lost instruction from last year. And I think those conversations will sort of again, come to the surface once more school systems, you know, release their plans in more depth and detail.
NNAMDIKimberly Adams, you've got about 30 seconds. Care to add anything to that?
ADAMSI think, you know, all the concerns we're hearing are valid. There's no exact answer. There's no exact playbook for how we do this. We're worried about the socialization of our students. We're worried about supporting the special needs of our students. We certainly want to make sure that we look to creative options like scheduling families and scheduling communities into their buildings at the same time.
ADAMSAnd we definitely have the same kinds of concerns around our healthy buildings.
NNAMDIOkay. Kimberly Adams, Shawna Garrett, Debbie Truong, thank you all for joining us. We'll take a short break. When we come back, it's Kojo for Kids with Acclaimed Children's Author Sharon Draper. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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