Revise FCPS School Reopening Policy

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As teachers and staff members of FCPS, we respectfully request that school reopening policy be revised to eliminate ambiguity and deficiencies. In light of the high stakes for families across our community,  we assert the need for decision-making that is driven by concrete metrics. 

Please consider current conditions that are fueling concerns: These include two core indicators that remain in the “red zone” for highest risk of community transmission in Fairfax County and across Virginia (with case numbers in the state breaking a record this week); predictions by medical experts of a post-holiday surge and a “dark winter” ahead for America, where deaths could top 400,000; and a new, more transmissible strain of the virus now present in the U.S.

Please also consider the findings reported this week in a Washington Post news article on the safety of school reopenings. The article says, “A study by researchers in Michigan and Washington state examined school and infection data, and found that when community infections rates were low [and when schools enforced safety protocols], reopening schools did not seem to worsen the situation.” Significantly, the report also reveals this: “But that calculation changed when infection rates were high, like they are now in ... wide swaths of the country. Then, schools did seem to contribute to community spread.” 

Given this crucial correlation, the need to rely on solid indicators of community infection becomes self-evident. Currently FCPS’ “COVID-19 Health Metrics” page identifies three core indicators that will determine a group’s ability to begin in-person instruction and, subsequently, to remain there.Two of these core indicators are clear, concrete metrics that emanate from outside the school system: the number of new cases per 100,000 residents, and the percentage of test positivity. The third indicator, the “self-assessments” conducted by safety teams on five mitigation strategies, raises significant concerns.The metrics page states that the first two criteria “are intended to be combined” with the third in driving decisions.

At the last reopening update meeting, Dr. Brabrand was asked to address the ambiguity of the preceding policy statement. Someone asked, in effect, if both numerical indicators are in the red zone, but safety teams indicate that mitigating procedures are being properly executed, then would you move forward on face to face instruction? He replied, simply, "Yes." 

Allowing the self-assessments to supersede concrete metrics raises considerable alarms. These include:

-Shortcomings and deficiencies in the safety teams’ ability to legitimately evaluate the five mitigating factors. At least one of these, contact tracing, is controlled by the Health Department. Some have also questioned the likelihood that the teams can monitor handwashing in restrooms. 

-Limited likelihood of monitoring on busses and school vans: Personnel in transportation have raised concerns about the fact that safety teams will be operating solely in buildings; some claim that social distancing will be hard to enforce in their vehicles.

-The prospect that ambiguity in guidelines could give rise to dangerous loopholes: For instance, if students and teachers are expected to practice social distancing “when possible,” will safety teams deem it acceptable if teachers allow students to sit together in groups in order to work collaboratively, with the rationale that collaboration is not “possible” if students are seated 6 feet or more apart? Will students be permitted to interact closely while in the halls and restrooms (since distancing in those spaces could be considered impractical or even “impossible”)?

-Other limitations: Schools are big places, and there are many of them. We question whether a team can really provide complete and accurate assessments that are free of subjectivity and capriciousness. 

For these reasons and more, we implore FCPS leadership to revise its policies. Please note, we are not requesting the dissolution of safety teams. Should the metrics reach a point in coming weeks or months where a return to school is deemed safe (i.e., where school reopening is unlikely to exacerbate community spread--per the findings reported in the Post article), the teams could serve to monitor and enforce guidelines, playing an important role in the continued safety of students and staff. 

But safety teams’ assessments should not factor into the decision to reopen or maintain in-person instruction. We must be guided instead by solid numbers.

Above all, we must remember that unlike other initiatives that are frequently launched in the school system, this is  not an experiment. If every life matters, there is no margin for error.