Superintendent Scott Brabrand invited families to a virtual community town hall and
At one point, answering a person's question about FCPS taking away students' rights to opt-out of mask-wearing, Brabrand said that the pandemic had required a collective sacrifice for our community, our country, and our world.
"'I'm frustrated too. I want to see the COVID cases go down, but I also believe our responsibility is to all of our students. And we have to do the appropriate balancing of individual rights. Our whole country was formed on this balancing act of individual rights and balancing those with the rights of others. I have a right to do things up until that right impinges or infringes on the rights of others," Brabrand said. He added that FCPS is committed, as they have been since the pandemic began, to moving out and through the pandemic together.
Dr. Michell Boyd, assistant superintendent for special services, FCPS, Dr. Nardus King, interim chief equity officer, FCPS, Benjamin Schwartz, MD, Fairfax County Health Department, and Russell Libby, MD, head of Virginia Pediatric Group, were among the guest speakers.
Brabrand said that as students returned to school on Tuesday for in-person instruction, the division had been successful throughout the pandemic, never having to close a school due to public transmission of COVID within a building.
"Our COVID transmission rates have been extremely low, less than one-half of 1 percent," Brabrand said. "My message to you remains a simple one. Stay the course. We must stay the course here at FCPS and continue to utilize the safety mitigation strategies around the COVID-19 pandemic that have allowed us to continue to have a school environment that is safe for students and our staff."
According to Brabrand, they, and others — parents, guardians, and students — must think about the needs of everyone as the division moves forward. "That's our hope tonight," said Brabrand. "You will listen with open minds and open hearts, and we'll continue to have a door here for you at FCPS."
Boyd said that despite the high COVID transmission rate in the county and across Virginia, FCPS had zero COVID outbreaks since returning from winter break and only 36 outbreaks with 151 cases in the 2021-22 school year. With over 200,000 students and staff at FCPS, Boyd said that this did not occur in isolation.
"Universal masking is recommended," at times of high levels of community transmission, said Boyd. The CDC recommends universal mask wearing indoors for staff and students ages two and above regardless of one's vaccination status.
"The recommendation from our federal health authorities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that everyone wears masks at this time," Boyd said. She added that the Northern Virginia health directors recommended that their Virginia superintendents talk about the importance of universal masking during high transmission. The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to strongly recommend that children wear masks in school when infection is high.
Boyd acknowledged that, at times, students wear their masks incorrectly and have to be reminded to pull them up. "But by and large, we want to celebrate that FCPS students have stepped up and have answered the call to keep themselves safe, to keep their friends safe, and to keep their community safe," she said.
Concerning the problems associated with student face mask compliance, FCPS will continue to handle them in a tiered fashion, "in a caring manner and in our caring culture," according to Boyd. She defined her efforts as being directed toward informing and educating rather than engaging in confrontation.
Students would first be redirected to wear their masks and may be redirected as staff worked with them. If there were still compliance challenges, staff would solicit the support of student service personnel, followed by engaging in conversation with parents and guardians.
"If FCPS exhausted this tiered approach to redirecting and supporting students … students who would not comply would be excluded from in-person instruction," said Boyd. Such does not include students with religious or medical exemptions,
Face masks are included in the student dress code and failure to comply remains an SR&R violation. According to FCPS, "Intentional removal of or refusal to wear a face covering during the times face coverings are required by all students will be treated as a violation of Regulation 2613.”
Brabrand shared his concerns around the governor's Executive Order Number Two, stressing that Senate Bill 1303 says they should be providing in-person instruction following CDC guidelines." In the end, we will respect the legal process, and we are confident that we have a strong legal case. … Now at the height of the number of cases per 100,000, the largest ever seen in FCPS,” the best course is staying the course, requiring masks.
Brabrand assured the community FCPS would work with them and produce a roadmap toward more flexible mitigation strategies, including those for more flexible mask-wearing as transmission eases.
Three thousand eight hundred people were online for the town hall during the Q and A. (Content slightly edited for clarity and length.)
Q: Has the school district attempted to limit harassment to students, parents, and staff concerning mask use?
A: Brabrand: We continue to work with our principals, Office of School Safety and Security. We have a strong relationship with our Fairfax County Police Department, and we have an SRO (school resource officer) in all our middle and high schools.
Q: Clarification on the type of masks is requested.
A1: Schwartz: The CDC document talks about the importance of a mask fitting well, having multiple layers, and a mask that a child will wear effectively and consistently. While KN95s and N95s have a higher filtering ability, if they don't fit or if children don't wear them consistently, they will not be effective. (The) CDC wasn't recommending that children do not wear cloth masks, but rather that they wear the best mask with the best filtering capacity that they can wear consistently, effectively, and without any gaps around the sides.
A2: Russell Libby, MD: But with kids, they scream, they yell, they laugh, they talk, they sing, they do all the things that will generate the flow of potentially infected or virus-carrying particles in their breath that will be there for others to catch. And wearing that mask is most prominently intended to help reduce the spread from someone who's asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic but carrying that virus. It might then infect someone else who would go home and infect their family, grandparents or others.
(Kids) carry a significant burden that we impose upon them by questioning and trying to undermine the real public health that all of us are here to advocate. They think they bought something home to their families that infected someone that killed someone. The potential for harm is so much greater than the potential for good.
Q: You are taking our kids' right to choose, and I don't feel that is right.
A: Brabrand: I think part of the pandemic is particularly hard for people balancing individual rights for how I want my child to go to school, with those rights' impact on the rights of other children, who also have a right to go to school and to go to school in a safe environment.
Brabrand ended the town hall saying that the pandemic caused more fatalities and casualties, than the number experienced during World War Two in wartime casualties. (World War II, 405,399 U.S. deaths. COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Deaths are more than 850,000)
"If this were a war, this is one of the most significant attacks on our country that we've ever endured. And so, we are facing that challenge between life and liberty that is fundamentally rooted in our own origin story as a country. I'm confident that we can continue to stay together, to work together, and to communicate the very latest in science and how to get us through this pandemic," Brabrand said.
“I'm just going to commit to you as I continue to finish my final year as superintendent and in my final year over a span of 30 years in Fairfax County, to work with all of you, to listen whether you agree with me or not, that I'm coming to you with a humble heart, with a servant's heart to support your kids, (and) to support our staff that supports your kids," Brabrand added.