The saga surrounding the status of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system and its distance learning plan is worth writing about. This is a modern discourse that should be restricted to a factual, nonfiction story. Instead, its development has traversed into purely fictional drivel, with angry parents dumping vitriol of creative demands of what their utopian school district should be doing.
To be clear, every parent has a right to feel what they feel and say what they wish. It is also my right to read those feelings and disagree. I also have the right to share my personal experiences with FCPS and attempt to light a tiny candle of hope in the underbelly of the hurricane. Following my desire to promote things in the most positive light possible with my Pollyanna glasses, I’m treating the FCPS matter no differently. Here is my point of view and my opinions.
Timeline – starting on March 12
For us here in Alexandria, Virginia, it all happened on Thursday, March 12. I’ll not soon forget this day because it marked a day our family would be experiencing “lasts” on so many levels. This day is also easy to remember because the following day was my parents’ anniversary and the birthday of a dear family friend. Moreover, my mother was with me at the time. With pure coincidental timing, she happened to be with me on this last week of normalcy that no one could have ever predicted.
On March 12th, we received notice that there would be no school that Friday, March 13th and Monday, March 16. Over the weekend, we would start receiving multiple messages telling us that the school would be closed a bit longer in response to the Virginia Governor’s mandate from March 12th that all schools would be closed for a minimum of two weeks.
On Monday, March 23rd, all of us parents were stunned to hear the news that schools in Virginia would be closed for the remainder of the school year. I think many of us took a full week off to feel as dazed and confused as the cast from the 1993 movie of the same name. I think we had a hard time processing that our normal lives of having kids in school for seven hours was now a thing of the past. It would take a lot of mental reflection to get past this new reality.
On March 26, 2020, our school district sent us one of many periodic updates to keep us parents apprised of all that was planned to address the education of our collective 189,000 children. To the best of my intelligence level and humane response to a brand new threat to our public health system, I made a determination that FCPS’ plans looked good. To my discerning eye, the information presented a sound, reasonable, logical approach that would help the students, the families, the teachers, the administrators, and the hundreds of other people affected by the school closure for the remainder of the academic year.
Look for yourself.
On April 1, our middle school principal announced he was hosting an online meeting the next day to discuss the school’s plans for distance learning.
On April 2, 250 parents from our middle school converged upon one central mission to understand the nature of the principal’s intentions. How exactly was he going to fulfill FCPS’ promises to give our 7th and 8th graders distance learning? How would FCPS’ plans apply to a middle school environment, where the kids were already starting to show signs of independence and rebellion even before this pandemic occurred?
Response: Pies in the Face!
All of us had so many questions, but the way those questions were presented resembled so much the famous pie-throwing scene from the 1980s t.v. show, Three’s Company. Anybody remember that? In that episode, people started throwing pies during a bake-off due to misunderstandings. The solution to the misunderstandings? Throwing pies in peoples’ faces, because everyone knows physical aggression beats civilized conversation, of course (enter sarcasm).
The chat function during the principal’s presentation was exactly like the pie-throwing from Three’s Company. Parents were so unbelievably angry and started blaming the principal for everything that was wrong with FCPS, as if this one school principal was in charge of the entire school district. Each verbal accusation was a figurative pie thrown in the direction of the principal, aiming for his face.
I am still reading some of those horrible comments in my mind: “this is unacceptable!!!” written by parents I actually know in real life! Thankfully, other parents were there to cool the hotheads and pour a glass of cold water over the unnecessarily incendiary comments. The principal himself evaded all pies directed at him with grace, sincerity, and an unequivocal resolution to make himself available to all parents for further discussion.
Please note: this FCPS representative was keeping the channels of communication open. In my experience, this was a standard across the board.
An Equitable Learning Environment
During this 60-minute presentation, the principal maintained an enviable composure even as he tried his best to explain the new distance learning plan while masterfully dodging rude interruptions by the parents. With everything the school principal said, there was one word that stood out when everything else was buried in the heap of details – – equitable.
Everything that FCPS was poised to do to enact a new distance learning plan was intended to be distributed in a such a way to make it an equitable learning environment.
What is equitable? According to the friendly folks at Merriam-Webster, Equitable is an adjective that means “dealing fairly and equally with all concerned.”
Let’s back up for a second and talk about some reminders that people conveniently forget. The students who go to public schools:
- Come from a single-parent home; 1 parent works and provides for the household. There may be trips to the other parent’s home.
- Have no living parents; grandparents or a legal guardian is taking care of them.
- Have some sort of special need (autism spectrum, hard-of-hearing, vision-impaired, ADHD, etc.)
- Are general learners who get average grades.
- Are great learners who do well with more rigorous schoolwork.
- Are gifted learners who need challenging materials.
- Come from a family who speaks another language other than English; may be enrolled as an ESOL student.
- Have Spanish-speaking parents whose ability to communicate in English is limited.
- Lack basic technology at home, such as a personal computer or printer; may not have Internet access.
- Are wealthy; have parents with multiple resources and opportunities for enrichment.
- Attend school with an aide because they are not able to communicate verbally.
These are just a few of the many differences among students in K-12 public schools. Notice anything from this list?
I just wanted to highlight how the starting line for students is anything but equitable. There is nothing fair or equal about having very diverse lifestyles in culture, economy, housing, language, family composition, and practically everything else. Knowing that students are not on equal footing to begin with, FCPS’ task to create an equitable educational plan for distance learning is understandably a huge challenge.
Between April 2 and April 17, parents received numerous follow-up information from FCPS with updates to their distance learning plans. Our official plan was scheduled to start this past Tuesday, April 14 and indeed, the day started off as a celebration of life. All of us treated the day as the “first day of distance learning school” which was now the second time during this school year that we were celebrating a first day. Regretfully, that was the happiest day of the week. Things started to go sour from there.
Glitches in Technology Fuel the Fire for Criticism
Little glitches in FCPS’ Blackboard Collaborate online application started happening. Those little glitches turned into an entire day lost where we couldn’t access the system. And then, we received another notification that distance learning would not take place on Thursday or Friday in order to make necessary technical updates.
Many parents took these technical glitches in stride. I loved seeing little words of support trickling in to our elementary school.
However, our local neighborhood listserv was only getting started. It formed slowly, and cautiously like one small gray cloud. The gray cloud gained tons of supporters and turned into a large, menacing bull. That bull pawed the ground and began charging with force, directing itself to destroy its challenger – the FCPS school system.
People came out in droves adding the most unbelievable criticism and complaints of the very school system that was educating its children. Everybody had an opinion, and 99% of them were negative. Once again, I’m here to reiterate that I’m not here to debate the issue itself. I will not turn FCPS’ distance learning plan into a modern version of War and Peace where the complainers win this battle. I respect everyone’s right to have an opinion, but I will also enforce my own positive opinion within my space.
Understanding Definition of “Equitable”
The main point of this blog post is to get readers to understand that the word “equitable” is incredibly important and signifies more than what people are hearing or understanding. “Equitable,” by definition, involves the component of action. Things are being done to reach a point of equity. Equitable doesn’t mean we’re already there and nothing else needs to get done; it is a series of steps to achieve a more equitable or just or fair outcome.
In the first week of distance learning, FCPS mailed “base materials” to all 189,000 of its students. Each base material was a learning packet that had appropriate materials per grade level. There were many problem-solving exercises as well as questions for reflection. I thought it was an excellent starting point towards an equitable plan for distance learning.
In addition, our elementary school was flooding our Facebook group with loads of extra educational sources for our children. Soon, my entire Facebook feed and entire posts through Facebook groups were dedicated to sharing a wealth of knowledge – – so many private companies and educational groups and even celebrities were filling in the gaps by providing extra sources to our children for free.
It was a very kumbaya moment for me as I started to see the power of positivity through the boundless walls of the Internet. I felt peoples’ kindness and care and consideration. We were all in this boat of confusion together.
Unfortunately, the “base materials” from FCPS served as new material for the cynical Karens and Kevins of the world. Our local discussion group through NextDoor became vicious. When one person posted his disparaging commentary about FCPS, that post immediately blew up as living, breathing, repugnant fecal matter where other people took a bath in it and spread it more. People continued chiming in with that person and started agreeing with how bad FCPS was and added 100,000 nit-picking reasons why other school districts were fantastic and ours was below par. I sat back and watched the fecal matter grow into an exclusive landfill of the hedonists of criticism. No way I was going to get involved with that wretched mess.
In a very carefully worded opinion of my own, I posted a brief three reasons why I felt FCPS was doing all it could to bring 189,000 into an equitable distance learning plan. A few people “liked” my comments. The majority pooped on my opinion and proceeded with the witch trials.
Here are my comments, by the way.
In an extremely related note, Melinda Gates from the Gates Foundation posted this amazing quote to her Twitter timeline on April 14:
Please note how she carefully words her goal: “to call for equitable access …” Again, it doesn’t mean people are already at the point of equity, it means she and the Gates Foundation are going to work on efforts to get to that point of equitable access.
If we can all calmly think about what words mean and try to rationalize what is actually meant by those words, I honestly feel a lot of the world’s dissension could be peacefully discussed, if not understood. Not asking for agreement in opinion as much as I am a peaceful understanding.
If parents from the FCPS district could step back, breathe, and understand its GOAL to offer distance learning in a way that is equitable to all, they would start to realize that they are TRYING to work with a starting point that is not equitable, to try to get differentiated learners up-to-speed through a new system.