Salad bars? Grading policies? Snow days? Solar power at schools? Electric buses?
Students asked Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) leaders about those things and more during an Oct. 19 discussion at the McLean Community Center.
The McLean Citizens Association’s Education & Youth Committee hosted the forum, featuring Superintendent Michelle Reid, School Board member Elaine Tholen (Dranesville District), Assistant Superintendent for Region 1 Douglas Tyson and Executive Principal for Region 2 Amielia Mitchell.
Reid, the 2021 National Superintendent of the Year who in July succeeded former Superintendent Scott Brabrand, fielded most of the students’ questions.
One girl asked about a salad bar that had been promised for her school’s cafeteria. Reid said she was preparing a report to the School Board, which is due by Nov. 1, regarding the school system’s Real Food for Kids program.
Pre-pandemic, 101 of FCPS’s 104 elementary schools had salad bars, but now none have them (nor do the county’s middle and high schools), Reid said. The superintendent added she was working with the system’s lead nutrition director to remedy the situation.
“Before the year is out, we’re going to have them back,” she said.
Another pupil asked whether students’ beloved days off because of snow storms would disappear, courtesy of remote learning facilitated by Zoom and other technology.
“I love snow days because it’s a day where you can just, like, sit in your house with hot cocoa and be with your family,” the student said. “I think that if a school closes because of a snow day, I don’t think that we should have virtual classes, because also sometimes the power goes out for some reason and some people might not be able to join the [classes].”
The panelist got a kick out of her reasoning. Reid asked fellow panelists when FCPS students must begin writing persuasive essays (fifth grade, as it turns out).
Reid promised to keep students’ perspectives in mind when deciding policy on the matter. Current regulations require virtual classes after the fifth snow day, she said.
“I haven’t decided whether to take more of the Grinch approach or more of a sort of fun approach,” Reid said. “I do think that we can learn even when we’re not on the computer.”
Another student, who had attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, inquired whether more lenient grading policies implemented during the pandemic would be made permanent or scaled back.
“I don’t know if there’s a ‘normal’ to return to,” Reid responded. “I’m hoping we’ve returned to something better than normal.”
Reid defended the practice of letting students retake exams, noting she had needed three tries to pass her driver’s examination as a teenager. Reid questioned whether being graded only a first attempt “fosters that stick-to-itiveness” to ensure students get what they need.
FCPS chief academic officer Sloan Presidio will assemble a group of students, parent and teachers this school year to examine grading policies, Reid said.
The student who posed the question suggested looser standards might not serve pupils well after they leave school.
“I’m worried that these are going to create kids who aren’t prepared for college and who are going to get a big shock when they go into the real world and have scary bosses and real deadlines,” he said.
Reid said students have different ways of demonstrating mastery and added some colleges have gone the “test-optional” route. “In some cases, tests are not the only predictor of whether a student is going to be in school,” she said.
Several members of McLean High School’s Environmental Club asked about yet-to-be-implemented solar panels at some county schools. Reid attributed the delays to contracting issues and said officials were close to a resolution allowing such installations to advance.
Another solar-energy possibility involves installing photovoltaic panels above parking lots, Tholen said.
Also on the environmental front, FCPS is investigating project-learning opportunities centered around waste reduction at schools, as well as more outdoor-learning options, she added.
The school officials supported the McLean High students’ proposed pilot program for composting.
Regarding their question on electric buses, the system operates more than 1,600 buses per day and 10 of those are electric. FCPS will obtain 10 more electric buses this school year via a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality grant program, plus another 10 through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Tholen said.
The school system has had to buy extended warranties for the electric buses because of their batteries and will need to install more charging infrastructure, Reid said. It’s possible other transportation arrangements will become more prevalent before the school system gradually switches all its buses to electric power, she said.
Education & Youth Committee chairman James Beggs said he hoped MCA would hold such a conversation annually with school leaders.
Beggs asked what Reid thought of the school system’s classroom trailers. The superintendent said the portable classrooms typically create an extra burden on the main school buildings’ infrastructure and she usually seeks other ways of accommodating extra students. One possibility could be holding some classes in unused office buildings, she said.
Because students are seeking other instruction opportunities such as “externships” – workplace training as part of coursework – Reid said she doubted the school system ever would build another comprehensive high school.
“The current model we have on comprehensive schools is 130 years old and it hasn’t changed much,” she said. “The entire world has changed everywhere around us . . . Sixty-five percent of the children in K-12 education are preparing for a career that doesn’t exist today and still we’re doing it the same way. I feel like we keep planning for our past.”