The petition against Tholen accuses her of incompetence and of neglecting her duty because she was complicit in the school system’s decision to shutter physical classrooms during the pandemic. It alleges Tholen’s behavior caused serious harm to children, and especially to students with disabilities.
“Tholen is believed to be the first elected official in the United States to have a recall filed amid the school closure debate,” Cooper wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday. “Parents are taking their schools back, starting now.”
The Open FCPS Coalition is seeking recalls for three of the 12 elected board members: Tholen, Abrar Omeish (At Large) and Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield). Cooper wrote in an email Monday that they are targeting these three because of their stated views on school reopening, and because of their failure to “[press] the superintendent to plan better.”
Cooper wrote that he is not sure how many signatures the group has collected for Omeish and Cohen. He said he holds no leadership role in the recall effort.
Tholen wrote in an emailed statement Monday that she has “always worked for my students’ well-being.” She noted she was elected to the School Board by winning almost 60 percent of the vote in her district.
“I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support,” she wrote. “It’s hard work, but there’s no greater calling.”
Fairfax schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said Monday that the recall campaign against Tholen is “misguided and based on incorrect information.” Lloyd said Fairfax reopened classrooms as quickly as possible.
“The decision to conduct classes online was a difficult decision, but it was the right one,” Lloyd wrote in a statement. “Most school districts across the country followed the same path.”
Like school systems nationwide, Fairfax, which enrolls 180,000, shuttered in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The school district underwent a difficult transition to virtual learning: Officials had to cancel school for about two weeks when online lessons were interrupted by technical failures, possible privacy breaches and sometimes racist harassment of students and teachers.
At the close of the mostly virtual 2020-2021 school year, school officials reported that failing grades had spiked massively during online learning, with the most vulnerable students faring worst.
In particular, as was the case nationally, students with disabilities were struggling in the virtual environment, which robbed them of an array of services they depended on during bricks-and-mortar schooling. Fairfax chose to pause these students’ Individualized Education Plans — meant to ensure they can learn on par with their peers — early in the pandemic, telling parents it was impossible to fulfill the plans online.
Parents later filed a complaint with the state over this pause, and Virginia officials opened an investigation into that complaint in May 2020. The state concluded in August last year that Fairfax was in full compliance with the law.
But the school system is also facing federal scrutiny: In late 2020, the Education Department opened an investigation into whether Fairfax failed students with disabilities during the pandemic. That probe is ongoing.
Fairfax returned about 50 percent of the student body to face-to-face instruction over the course of the past school year, and officials have promised all students will learn five days a week in person come fall.
“Fairfax became a national embarrassment and remained one into the spring when schools remained locked,” Cooper wrote.
He praised the parents who gathered the signatures needed to bring Tholen’s recall before a judge.
“It was moms and dads setting up shop in parking lots around the county in blistering February and sweltering June,” he wrote, “asking their community to support their children.”