David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest comes to mind when reviewing Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) internal records.
A FOIA request FCPS is still heading to court over, and records collecting digital dust in Fairfax County School Board’s (FCSB) collection of online documents, comprise the bulk of the records.
In 2006, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) warned school districts that pandemics were on the horizon and advised them to prepare pandemic plans.
FCPS took heed and had a plan in development by 2007.
Between 2007 and now, a portrait emerged of leaders who were dazzled by themselves and their colleagues, “how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next . . .” to quote David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest. As the author wrote of a different generation of leaders, this mentality underlines the weakness of the FCPS team, too, “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after . . .”
Even now, FCPS claims to be among the best school districts in the United States, even though it is among the few school districts in the entire U.S. that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation into, regarding its response to COVID.
Best Laid Plans
The View from 2006 and 2007
In 2006, USDOE released a pandemic planning guide for schools. While a flu pandemic was then the pandemic expected, the guide covered best practices for pandemics period, including the following:
- Every district should have an Emergency Management Plan.
- The Plan should be flexible to encompass all hazards.
- Every district should develop a Pandemic Flu Plan
- Plans should be practiced on a regular basis.
- Plans should be based on sound data and information.
- Plans should be continually reviewed and updated as new information is available.
September 17, 2007, FCSB was briefed on FCPS’s pandemic plans. The documents presented share a view of a school district on its way to being prepared ten-plus years in advance of COVID. (See “Emergency Management Issues” slide presentation, “Fairfax County Public Schools Pandemic Influenza Response Plan” (redacted), “Pandemic Response Matrix“, “Systemwide Emergency Operations Plan“, “Use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) During Pandemic Influenza Outbreak“).
One slide in the briefing focuses on a CDC guidance document titled “Interim Pre-pandemic Planning Guidance” and another slide states, “No one can predict the timing, nature and severity, or what the new virus will be. Experts worldwide believe near term pandemic may be imminent.” Page two of FCPS’s “Pandemic Influenza Response Plan” states, “While the full impact of a pandemic cannot be predicted, planning for operations under such conditions can mitigate the impact of the event on our staff, facilities and mission.”
Ten days later, September 27, 2007, Fred Ellis, then Director/Office of Safety and Security, briefed the school board on FCPS’s emergency management issues, to include pandemic planning. (Click linked text to view 9.27.07 school board briefing slide show and to listen to the presentation.)
Failed Redactions Provide an Expanded View of FCPS’s 2007 Pandemic Planning
FCPS failed to secure its attempted redactions to its “Pandemic Influenza Response Plan” and “Systemwide Emergency Operations Plan” documents. A search for hidden information revealed the redactions. (Click linked text to view redactions: response plan, operations plan.)
The response plan’s redactions mainly focus on responsibilities—as in who will be responsible if a pandemic hits. This includes the Assistant Superintendent, Instructional Services, whose responsibility included the following:
• Alternative academic continuity planning if school is canceled for an extended period.
• Educational support plans for students who are isolated or quarantined.
• Rescheduling of the instructional calendar after the period of contagion has passed.
The operations plan’s redactions are more extensive.
Two Years Later: 2009, Blackboard, Academic Continuity, and Special Education
September 10, 2009, Kim Dockery, Assistant Superintendent/Special Services and Fred Ellis,
Director/Office of Safety and Security, briefed FCSB on the state of the pandemic plan. The meeting minutes and presentation (view transcript, listen to presentation) make it clear that Kim, Fred, and others were planning for the future and actively trying to update FCPS’s initial plans.
During this presentation, Kim stated,
In terms of academic continuity, all the schools are also being encouraged to have teachers keep their Blackboard sites update for their personal classes. But in addition, Instructional Services is working on our—it was our Blackboard pandemic site, but we’re calling it Keep on Learning, and it will only be turned on in a case where you have a number of students that were . . . if we had a lot of students sick at home, or if we had a case where we needed to have portions or populations of school of students that couldn’t have access to school.
Ten years later, FPCS made headlines nationwide for its spectacular failure to launch its virtual learning platform, which included 1) issues with Blackboard, 2) failures to keep Blackboard pages up to date, and 3) staff in need of training to use Blackboard as a teaching platform.
During the same September 10 meeting, school board member Martina Hone asked about instructional continuity, specifically students with special needs:
I’m pleased to hear that you have a plan. Kids who are students with IEPs or have disabilities, kids that are sort of not sort of caught in the mainstream and their extra needs, how are we going to deal with academic continuity for those kids?
Kim responded, “We’re working within special ed to look at those kinds of things”.
A search for “Pandemic” on FCSB’s BoardDocs site failed to pull up anything between that September 10 meeting and early 2020.
No Practice, No Perfect
For two years during 2007 and 2009, FCSB and FCPS were moving in the right direction—and then everything fell apart. Kim Dockery retired in 2015 and other staff moved on as well.
Fast forward to 2020 and Kim’s 2009 comment related to “working within special ed” to address academic continuity remained unrealized.
March 16, 2020, Jane Strong, Director of Special Education Procedural Support (OSEPS) sent an email with a directive from Francisco Duran, “to begin brainstorming how we would guide our spec ed teachers to provide services for our students.” She went on to state:
High incidence students probably can manage with the online instructions. We need to probably develop a plan for low incidence students. Things like: sped teacher office hours, video or recorded lessons, materials pick up and small equipment (?) EDY? should be thought about. (not a full list, you may have other ideas.)
Two days later, March 18, 2020, records indicate that Jane and other staff members attended a presentation by law firm Reed Smith, which was already monetizing COVID-related issues at $285 a pop, per attendee. Following that presentation, on March 19, 2020, Jane sent another email, this time stating,
I wish they would not go forward with Distance Learning.
That same day, Procedural Support Liaison manager Debbie Lorenzo, agreed with Jane and—in comments foreshadowing FCPS’s online learning debacle—acknowledged that there would be problems related to equity, based just on teachers online “knowledge and comfort”:
I agree with you. There are going to be long term ramifications. This is why they were saying IEPs needed to be completed before you begin so you have thoughtfully considered the needs of the student and made changes to the IEP. The fact that each teacher has varying levels of knowledge and comfort with online should be enough to say it is not going to be equitable across students.
Right now George Mason has left it up to the professor to determine the format of their class because not all professors have the capacity to run a blackboard collaborate. Nicolas has 2 professors who will have live sessions at their designated days starting next week where the other 2 will be emailing assignments and then his last class is online so it will continue that way.
Irony and Failure
FCPS is known to aggressively pressure students to return yearly forms related to funding, specifying if their families are military. Yet, FCPS failed to pay attention to one thing the large military community in the FCPS area knows well: practice, practice practice.
FCPS has a large military community, owing to FCPS’s proximity to the Pentagon, Fort Belvoir, and Quantico. What the military families know is that having a plan isn’t enough. Training and drills are required to ensure the plans work when they’re needed. Practice isn’t a job. It’s a way of life. As an Army Brat, I didn’t know what “TDY” stood for when I was a kid, but I knew it had to do with my father’s routine leaves to support one exercise or another. Practice made perfect.
FCPS’s connection to the military did not extend to practicing its plans to ensure they would work when needed and/or calibrate them to address emerging needs, risks, and threats.
Instead, FCPS had Jane Strong and others scrambling—after 10+ wasted years—to brainstorm about how to address the needs of students who have special education needs.
The Best and the Brightest
I started this article citing David Halberstam’s extraordinary The Best and the Brightest and I’ll end with the same. In the book, the author stated:
. . . the problem was not just the American personnel, which was often incompetent, nor the governmental reporting, which was highly dishonest, nor the client government, which was just as bad as its worst critics claimed—the real problem was the failure to re-examine the assumptions of the era.
For decades, parents have made FCPS, VDOE, and USDOE aware of failures within Virginia’s special education system.
For decades, the media has been slow to show up to cover the problems. COVID sparked some coverage, but it was too little too late, and has dried up with each passing day.
The government reporting is questionable. (How did Virginia “meet requirements” per USDOE reporting, even though numerous federal and state reports have found massive problems related to special education in Virginia?)
And then there’s FCPS itself, so confident, failing to re-examine its assumptions, failing to develop a pandemic plan, even though it had more than ten years to get one in place—and now failing to address the needs of every child within its school district, as well as those it continues to graduate out of the system, denying recovery and/or comp ed services.
*Thank you to FCPS parent Debra Tisler for making me aware of FCPS’s pandemic planning circa 2007.