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August 13, 2020 · OPINION

“Insurmountable” barriers led to virtual instruction

By Stephanie Litter-Reber
School Board Member

Why did Fauquier County Public Schools “cave” and decide to go virtual?

• Four schools without nurses, 20 bus routes without drivers and resignations still coming in.

• More than 200 fewer substitute teachers than last year. We have 130; last year we had 354, and that still wasn’t enough. Teachers taught sick last year because there weren’t any available subs to cover their classrooms.

• Numerous Family Medial Leave Act and leave of absence vacancies, both protected by law, that needed to be filled from that small pool of substitutes.

Insurmountable staff shortages — this was the true catalyst behind our “cave.” The initial survey indicated that about 500 students intended to sign up for the virtual track. But, when the registrations started coming in, the actual number was closer to 3,000. And, there are still over 2,000 students who haven’t signed up for anything. We have no idea what their plans are. They might be switching to home school; they might be switching to private school, or they might show up at the bus stops, expecting to go to school on the morning of Aug. 24.

Thirty-seven teachers were approved for the virtual track, which required vetting and medical documentation. But, that pool of teachers didn’t contain enough special education teachers (five) to handle the number of students requiring services (395). That pool of teachers didn’t contain any English as a Second Language teachers, but there were 136 ESL students signed up for virtual instruction. And, that pool did not allow for any classes outside of the core classes.

In essence, the kids who chose virtual were getting the absolute bare minimum and, in many cases, less than that.

Why couldn’t we just pull them from the in-person pool of teachers?

Because we had significant gaps there, too. Pulling teachers from in-person instruction, with 5,600 students signed up, and putting them into the gaps in virtual instruction would have left the classrooms overcrowded and unable to accomplish the social distancing that we promised to parents and staff, and which were mandated by the state.

We went into this pandemic with staffing gaps. Those gaps didn’t get better; they got magnified. The substitute pool varies between degreed and non-degreed personnel, which also presents a problem. Not every position is “plug and play.” Taking a sub that either isn’t degreed or has a degree in English and plugging them into a long-term sub position teaching middle or high school math does not equal a good outcome for anybody.

Teachers and subs are not simply warm bodies that occupy a necessary space. Putting a non-degreed sub into a longer term position — more than a day or two — when a teacher gets quarantined will also not benefit anybody. We approved an increase in sub pay during the last board meeting in an attempt to bring us more in line with our neighboring counties and to attract more subs. But, the numbers didn’t change. Our HR team has been reaching out farther and farther in recruitment efforts, but we do not have a line of people beating down our door wanting to enter the world of education.

Our staff did everything they possibly could to make both tracks work, but as the balance beam continued to tilt away from our goal, all we would have ended up doing, if we had continued down the road we were on, is doing both models badly and most likely having to shut down and go virtual within a month.

Some of the ideas on how to make this situation work that I have heard are good. We are working with Warrenton Town Councilman Sean Polster and the board of supervisors to try to implement “learning pods” throughout the county to accommodate the kids of essential workers, the kids without internet and the at-risk kids. The Boys and Girls Club has been instrumental in Sean’s pilot, which — once the bugs are worked out and a process is defined — can be implemented across the county as long as we can establish those partnerships with other entities.

But this isn’t something the school division can take on by itself, given the state and federal rules and regulations we have to abide by. We can’t just go and bring people in off the street — no matter how well meaning — and put them in a classroom. We school board members can work with other local government entities, such as civic and church organizations, to leverage space, allowing for the recommended social distancing and their vetting process to ensure anybody that is trusted with our children is a safe person.

The last thing any of us wants is to subject our kids to an unscrupulous person who uses a chaotic situation to slip in, undetected and cause harm.

There is no rat; there is no conspiracy. There is a chronically underfunded education system — not by the local government, but by the state and federal government — that finally could not meet all of the requirements, unfunded mandates and handling of the gapping holes in our social services system that have been constantly piled onto it with no additional funds or resources. This situation also has identified gaping holes in our public infrastructure, especially broadband. The schools didn’t create this hole. This hole has existed for years; the closing of schools just highlighted how epically bad it is.

The real story here is that the virtualization of ours schools has highlighted just how many things the school system and its teachers have become responsible for that fall far, far beyond the confines of “education.”

A Remington resident, the writer represents Lee District on the Fauquier County School Board.
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