FCPS Must Heighten COVID Protocols

Zainab Rentia, News Editor

As students shared what they did over Winter Break, the frequent declarations of “I got COVID” were met with little reaction from the rest of the class. Teachers described their bouts with the infection as if they had the flu. What was once a deadly virus regarded with fear is now treated as if it were a common cold, and many of FCPS’ measures reflect this new attitude. However, this does not match reality. 

The seven-day average of newly reported Covid-19 infections in the U.S. is on track to triple the record set a year ago due to the highly virulent Omicron strain which now makes up 95 percent of all new cases in the U.S. In order to combat this surge, FCPS has released layered prevention strategies. Custodians regularly wash frequently touched surfaces such as door handles with Virex, a highly effective disinfectant, multiple times a day, according to Dr. Floyd, Woodson’s principal. 

Graph by Vy Nguyen. Source: FCPS

Woodson also offers multiple locations for students to eat their lunch, even allowing them to eat in their cars, spreading out the students from the highly concentrated cafeterias. Even after school FCPS is taking no chances, allowing only family members to observe sports games to “curb superfluous participation,” said Dr. Floyd. Although the risks in these two situations are still high, it is comforting to know FCPS is committed to limiting this risk as much as possible.

Other strategies, however, including basic measures such as taking the vaccine and booster shots, and administering tests when experiencing symptoms, are less successful. The Pfizer vaccine is only 30 to 40 percent effective against the Omicron variant, and while this percentage increases with the booster shot, a large population of school-aged children is unable to receive it. And although FCPS offers testing, they frequently run out of tests in some locations by the afternoon. Therefore, these measures FCPS has endorsed as its main protection from COVID-19 are highly ineffective, and will do little to stop the spread of this dangerous infection.

Instead, the school board should force schools to implement stricter policies in regards to social distancing and contact tracing. The CDC recommends maintaining a distance of three feet, and while Dr. Floyd assured me desks are arranged so students are three feet away from each other nose to nose, frequent collaboration among students means we are more often separated by a mere three inches. 

Woodson’s contact tracing system, meanwhile, has been all but forgotten by students and instead Dr. Floyd simply has asked infected students to tell the proper authority whom they have been sitting near. However, a few individuals the student has been close to are bound to slip their mind, therefore necessitating a more reliable system for contact tracing. Instead, teachers should note where students are sitting and submit this information if needed. And while this may put more burden on the teacher, this system has already been implemented for those instructing students with intellectual disabilities. 

The subsequent teacher shortage FCPS could face due to the surge led officials to outline their plans to continue instruction. Schools will first have substitutes replace infected teachers, however, due to FCPS’ ongoing substitute shortage, this is unlikely to provide for all teacher absences. Instead, what is more likely to happen is teachers who have a planning period would act as a substitute for that period. However, this only adds to the already substantial workload for teachers. 

If worst comes to worst, Plan B will be implemented, where multiple classes would be combined for asynchronous learning. Even as I’m writing this I find myself shaking my head at this alarmingly dangerous plan. How can cloistering 60 students in an approximately 1000 square foot room, in the middle of a pandemic, ever be thought of as a safe idea? 

Cartoon by Vy Nguyen.

Instead of forcing conditions that guarantee a COVID infection among students, FCPS should offer a virtual learning option. However, a Virginia state law requiring in-person learning be offered to students for all five days of the week, forcing counties to pay if they instead go entirely virtual according to Dr. Floyd, is being used as an excuse by FCPS to claim that remote learning is not an option. They have conveniently chosen to ignore that it does not completely ban remote learning, instead using it to continue touting in-person learning to “convince virtual-school-only hard supporters that we can’t go virtual and have to stay in person,” said Dr. Floyd. 

This is especially distressing considering the average absentee rate in FCPS is 8.1 percent, almost twice as high as the average absentee rate between October and December. Almost ten percent of students are forced to learn from home, inconveniencing teachers who now have to provide asynchronous learning for the absent students. If teachers are already being forced to supply remote learning, which is nothing more than a “band-aid” for a much larger problem that “they are hoping will go away,” according to Dr. Floyd, FCPS should provide it as an option for all students, regardless of whether or not they are infected, instead of aimlessly waiting for the surge to end on its own and providing little resources to those affected by it.

Although much of this piece has been a criticism of FCPS, in the face of Governor Youngkin’s executive order banning mask mandates, the county has remained defiant in requiring masks in schools. However, if Youngkin continues to create new policies endangering the health of students in order to appease his supporters, I can only hope FCPS will continue to prioritize the health of its students and staff.