Local Education

What you need to know about Fairfax public schools this year

Washington Post reporters answer questions to help parents and guardians navigate the pandemic school year.

What kind of learning are the schools offering: in-person, fully remote or hybrid?

Fairfax County Public Schools will start the 2020-2021 academic year on Sept. 8 with all-virtual learning for all students. The school will continue with online-only education for most students for the foreseeable future.

Are there plans for in-person learning, possibly with a hybrid approach, in the future?

Shortly after Sept. 8, Fairfax plans to start bringing small, specific groups of students back to classrooms in what the school system is calling a “cohort” approach. Initially, officials will bring in preschool-age autistic students, English language learners who have received little formal education, those participating in specialized high school academy courses and those enrolled in adult and community education classes such as workforce training and behind-the-wheel driver’s education.

The second group to return will include more English language learners and more high school academy students, as well as prekindergartners, kindergartners and Key Center and Kilmer Center students. The third group will include still more high school academy students, first- and second-graders and Burke School elementary school students.

What have the schools done to provide devices to students?

Fairfax is providing all students, prekindergarten through 12th grade, with laptop computers.

How strong an Internet connection is needed to take part in remote learning, and where can families get such a connection if they don’t have it currently?

The school system is recommending that families contact local Internet service providers to discuss bandwidth needs, which are influenced by the number of devices attached to the network, as well as the activity on those devices. For that reason, Fairfax “cannot make broad recommendations for home bandwidth,” a spokeswoman said, although “it is important that a home network can handle video streaming as a key component of virtual learning.”

As of late August, at least 93 percent of Fairfax families reported having reliable Internet access at home, a spokeswoman said. School officials have worked all summer to contact families who either indicated that they do not have reliable Internet or failed to answer a recent survey on the issue. To date, the school had distributed more than 5,000 MiFi (mobile WiFi) devices, and is partnering with Cox Communication to expand free and low-cost Internet options for eligible families through something called the Connect2Compete program. More information is available at this website, which lists all the ways Fairfax families can get access to technology and to Internet service.

How do parents or students get support if they have technology issues?

Fairfax is launching a help desk for parents and is developing an online portal that will allow students to request tech help directly. The school system has also published a website that lists all the resources available to Fairfax families facing technology troubles.

What is the length of the remote school day?

Elementary school students will receive about four hours a day of instruction. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers will follow bell schedules: The middle school day will run from 7:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.; the high school day will run from 8:10 a.m. to 2: 55 p.m.

Are exceptions to all-virtual learning being made for students in special education or for other students to come to campus in small groups?

Not yet.

Will teachers be teaching from home or from their classrooms?

Fairfax teachers can choose between the two options.

How much real-time instruction is there?

Fairfax students will receive four days a week of live instruction, Tuesday through Friday. On those days, elementary school students will sit through roughly three hours of video instruction. Middle- and high-schoolers will receive closer to six hours a day of instruction. Mondays will be set aside for independent learning, although some students may receive teacher-directed specialized instruction or intervention, if educators determine that they need it. A sample schedule of the online school day is available here.

How is attendance being tracked?

Fairfax teachers will take attendance.

Is grading different from in a typical year?

At the start of the 2020-2021 year, grading will largely remain the same as it was before the pandemic hit, although the school system is recommending that teachers employ “thoughtful consideration and flexibility” when assessing student work, a spokeswoman said. That may change, however. “It has been recommended that collaborative teams reevaluate grading design and policies” to accommodate all-virtual learning, the spokeswoman said, and that work is ongoing. In the meantime, teachers will continue to follow the Fairfax grading policy.

How are art, music and physical education taught to elementary school children?

They will be taught virtually, like other classes. Elementary school students will be able to take general music, band and strings — but not chorus, at least for the first semester. Elementary-schoolers will receive at least 30 minutes a week each of virtual art, music and PE, a spokeswoman said.

How long are high school sports postponed?

In Virginia, the state athletic association has voted to postpone high school sports until at least late December. At that time, public health conditions permitting, students will begin participating in condensed versions of the fall, winter and spring seasons.

If students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, how will they get those lunches?

Fairfax plans to continue to provide breakfast and lunch during the 2020-2021 school year at school sites and on bus routes. The school system is surveying parents on students’ meal needs, and it will announce a final distribution plan soon. Currently, the school is distributing meals at more than 50 permanent and pop-up sites, a full list of which is available here.

Do the schools offer any child-care options for working parents or school employees?

The Fairfax school system is not offering child-care options for parents or staff. Fairfax County government officials have established a Supporting Return to School Program that will allow children in kindergarten through sixth-grade to enter 37 Fairfax public school buildings each day, in groups of 10, to participate in distance learning while supervised by staff members. The service will be available at a reduced price to qualifying low-income families. More information is available here, or by calling 703-449-8989.

The school system is asking that parents whose child-care situation makes it impossible for their children to attend live, real-time virtual classes to notify their school. An administrator at the school will “develop a plan for later access” with the family, a spokeswoman said, which is possible because all Fairfax teacher-led live lessons will be recorded.

If a child needs to see a school mental health specialist or counselor, how will those visits take place?

The visits would be virtual sessions. Any parent can schedule a 30-minute phone consultation with a school psychologist or social worker — for the parent or for the child. Fairfax has a website listing its mental health resources.

Has the school system curriculum changed as a result of the pandemic? Is the material being covered exactly the same as in other years?

The material being covered this year is essentially the same as in other years, a spokeswoman said. The Standards of Learning set by the Virginia Department of Education will remain the foundation of what is taught in Fairfax classrooms. Still, school officials are providing teachers with “curriculum guidance and resources that emphasize the central priorities for learning in each course,” the spokeswoman said, as well as resources meant to make it easier for teachers to take their classes fully online. More information on the 2020-2021 curriculum is available here.

Will standardized tests take place?

Standardized tests are slated to take place in Virginia, although that may change as the year progresses. Last school year, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wound up allowing states to apply to waive the requirement.

Illustrations by iStock.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us