An interview with Springfield’s Laura Jane Cohen on the School Board recall effort - County supervisors prepare for hearing on plastic bag tax
FCPS to require vaccination for athletes - Inova unveils plans for Springfield campus - Partnership aims to draw more sporting events to Northern Virginia
Welcome to Braddock Buzz! ICYMI, last week we announced the winners of our inaugural reader survey, Braddock’s Best. Several readers emailed us that they’d like to see a more expansive range of categories—and we’ll definitely follow through on that next year.
Programming note: There will be no newsletter next week, as we’ll be traveling. We’ll be back in your inboxes Monday, Sept. 20.
Thank you to our sponsors:
Realtor Jennifer Mack, who has some exciting news: She’s the listing agent for a historic property built in 1911 that was once a two-room schoolhouse in Burke. The home will be open to the public for the first time in 70 years on Sept. 18. There’s more info in Jennifer’s column—and you can always reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
WorkAway Solutions, your neighborhood coworking space in Ravensworth. WorkAway offers long-term and short-term coworking space for individuals and teams—along with meeting rooms, business mail service, and more. Book a tour today!
We’re looking for a third regular advertiser for this space. If interested, email us at email@example.com
Laura Jane Cohen to parents angry over last year’s school closures: “Reach out to me”
An interview with the Springfield District School Board member
Laura Jane Cohen is one of three School Board members being targeted for recall by the Open FCPS Coalition, a group of parents angry over last year’s pandemic school closures.
The Springfield District representative got good news last month when a judge dismissed the recall proceedings against her colleague, the Dranesville District’s Elaine Tholen. Nonetheless, the Open FCPS Coalition continues to collect signatures—and the group’s leader, Dee O’Neal, says they’re 800 away from the 4,000 needed for a recall filing against Cohen.
We spoke with Cohen about the recall effort, the start of the 2021-22 school year, pandemic preparations, and more. The transcript is below, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Hi, Laura. Based on what you’ve seen so far, how are you feeling about the preparations FCPS put in place for COVID-19?
By and large, it's going great. There's always room for improvement, and we tweak as we go. Most of my calls and emails have revolved around a couple things.
One is lunch and the availability of outdoor space. Last month, we decided unanimously to allocate some of our federal relief dollars to ensuring there are opportunities for every child to eat outside. If that means we have to hire lunch monitors, if it means working to recruit more parent volunteers, if it means borrowing tents from families—whatever needs to happen, it needs to happen. Unless there's significant inclement weather, we need to be encouraging kids to eat outside, especially our elementary kids who are unvaccinated.
Another one is the buses. I know there've been a lot of stories about the national bus driver shortage. We're certainly feeling it here. The School Board voted last month to raise bus driver salaries to be competitive with neighboring counties, and we also approved a recruitment incentive. When you come to us with your Commercial Driver’s License, you get a $3,000 signing bonus.
Q: Are you confident in the process in place for when a student, teacher, or staff member tests positive?
I don't want to say I’m 100% confident, because what we’re doing today may not be exactly what we’re doing next week. As we learn more, we do better. This is one of those things that’s ever-changing, and you have to check every day if there’s new guidance. We’re learning more about some of the states that have put in place a test-and-stay mechanism. That’s when kids who were close contacts but are asymptomatic can be tested and returned to school in a shorter time period. We're certainly looking into that. By October 13, we will implement a policy where employees have to be vaccinated or be subject to weekly testing.
Q: What’s being done to make up for the lost learning from the past year-and-a-half and the impact to students’ social-emotional well-being?
As we’re looking at some of the test scores coming back, it’s clear that our kids struggled whether they were in-person or virtual. Every kid has been affected by what's happened, and some families have experienced employment insecurity, food insecurity, and housing insecurity. Of the state and federal relief dollars that we’ve gotten, 90% are going to direct student interventions and support. Nine months in school is not going to fix what's happened—I wouldn't begin to say that. We will still be offering a really robust summer school program, and we will continue to offer additional supports for the long haul.
The pandemic has really shined a light on things that a lot of us in education have seen and known for so long, and there's no question there’s a gap in success for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. If there’s anything good to have come from the pandemic, it’s that it has put a magnifying lens on how we address these gaps.
Q: You’re one of three School Board members being targeted by the Open FCPS Coalition for recall. What would you say to parents who still feel angry—angry enough to sign a petition—over the way school closures were handled?
One thing I would say is, reach out to me. Talk to me. Whether you signed the petition or not, if your kid is struggling, I will be there. I will do everything in my power to make sure they have a successful year in school and that they feel successful in school, which sometimes are two different things.
The best thing about this country has been that reasonable discourse and reasonable disagreement has always been encouraged, from our foundation. I don't take any fault with people being angry or upset with how we’ve navigated this past year and a half. Everybody has a right to do that. But I certainly would argue that in a representative democracy, the ballot box is where you take that.
Q: Do you regret anything about the way school closures were handled?
Everything we did, we relied on the best information we had at that moment in time. Every school system navigated the pandemic as best they could, and almost everybody did something different. School boards were not given a lot of direction from the state and from the federal government about what we needed to do and what criteria we needed to use, and so I think we navigated it as best we could. I don't mean we're not open to criticism. Different people can absolutely have different feelings about how they would have handled it sitting in the seat. But when you're sitting there and your responsibility is to 189,000 kids, real kids, two of them mine by the way, and to every family in this district, and to every single one of our 28,000 staff members and their families, when you sit at the table with limited right answers—I feel very confident that this board sat together and at every decision point tried to make the very best decisions we could.
Q: Have you had to hire a lawyer because of this process?
Because the recalls deal with actions we took as a function of our job, we're represented by FCPS. Our tax dollars are being put to defending this case. Tax dollars are also being put to prosecuting it because the law requires it to be handled by the Commonwealth’s Attorney. It does cost a lot of taxpayer dollars to do this, which is a real shame and I think takes away from resources that could be going toward kids.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the recall process?
I'm very happy for Elaine [Tholen]. I am really pleased that the judge saw that the petition is unfounded and not factual. My hope would be we can all find a way to work together.
Q: Can you provide an update on the superintendent search, and what role the public should expect to have?
We have already put out the request for proposals, which ended on August 18. So any firm in the country that wanted to compete in the process of being the search firm for finding the new superintendent—they've already submitted their proposals. Those will come back to the full board for review, and we ultimately will choose a national search firm. My understanding is that process will go into late fall or early winter, when we’ll begin getting names of candidates and conducting interviews. The goal is to have no gap, so in a perfect world the new superintendent would start in the summer after Dr. Brabrand's contract expires.
We will absolutely be taking public input. We will take input from our staff and principals and any administrators, who will be able to weigh in on what kind of qualities and qualifications they want to see in a new leader. There will be focus groups, public testimony, and many other ways to gather input.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It's definitely been interesting getting to see FCPS from so many different lenses—parent, former teacher, and now a School Board member. I always have a very active focus group at my home for every decision that we make and how things are actually working on the ground, and I really appreciate that. I also appreciate all the perspective from my friends who are still out there in the field teaching, god bless them. They are always very effusive in their comments about how our policies are actually working. It's so important because a lot of times policymakers don't think about the unintended consequences of the decisions they make and don’t take the time to learn how things are actually implemented on the ground. Sometimes it’s different than the way things were envisioned at 30,000 feet.
WorkAway Solutions offers flexible coworking space in Ravensworth
Supervisors to consider plastic bag tax next Tuesday: A week from today, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will hold a 4:30 p.m. hearing to consider a 5-cent tax on plastic bags from grocery stores, drugstores, and convenience stores. The measure was put forward by Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who said it’s “intended to discourage consumption of single-use plastic bags, which often end up as litter in local streams and waterways, harming fish and other wildlife.”
Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the board’s lone Republican, has come out against the measure, saying now is not the time for any new tax. “While people who are well-off will largely feel little impact, it will disproportionately burden lower-income families both in cost and convenience without changing their behavior,” he said. He cited a study from the University of Ottawa that found that Toronto’s plastic bag tax “was highly effective in encouraging people who already used reusable bags to use them more frequently” but had no behavioral impact on people with lower socio-economic status.
The Virginia General Assembly last year authorized localities to collect plastic bag taxes as long as the revenue is put toward:
Environmental cleanup programs
Pollution and litter mitigation programs
Educational programs on environmental waste reduction
Provision of reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) benefits
News in Brief
FCPS is speeding up the process for returning vaccinated students to the classroom after they’re identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Starting today, the close contacts can return to class if their parents show proof of vaccination and confirm that the child is asymptomatic—and then receive verification from the county health department.
Effective Nov. 8, FCPS will require students to be vaccinated to participate in school sports, according to Tysons Reporter.
Also from Tysons Reporter: Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William, and Stafford counties are joining to create SportsNOVA, a partnership aimed at drawing more sporting events to Northern Virginia.
Inova Health System has unveiled plans for its new campus in Springfield, which will include a 425,000-square-foot inpatient facility and a 140,000-square-foot ambulatory surgery and outpatient center, reports Washington Business Journal.
Transfers to and from Metrorail and Fairfax Connector buses are now free, the Annandale Blog reports. The free transfers do not apply to Fairfax Connector Express service, which will instead have a discount.
Saturday, Sept. 11, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.: Fairfax County’s Stuff the Bus Food Drive is collecting nonperishable food donations at the Braddock District office (9002 Burke Lake Road, Burke, Virginia 22105), the Oaks Community Center (5708 Oak Leather Dr, Burke, VA 22015), and at 19 additional locations throughout Fairfax County and Fairfax City. More info here.
Sunday, Sept. 12, 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.: The Friends of Lake Accotink Park (FLAP) holds its monthly park clean-up, starting at the Lake Accotink Marina.
Saturday, Sept. 18, 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: FLAP hosts a tribute ceremony in the McLaren-Sargent Pavilion for Dick Sargent, a longtime park volunteer who passed away last November. Register here.
Monday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.: Braddock District Supervisor Walkinshaw hosts a community meeting on the Countywide Strategic Plan. Register here.
Jennifer Mack column: Burke’s original schoolhouse open to the public for the first time in 70 years
Normally I don't discuss my specific listings, but this one is extremely special, so I hope you’ll indulge me. For the first time in over 70 years, Burke's original schoolhouse, located at 9324 Old Burke Lake Road, is for sale and will be open to the public!
This home, named Whiteoaks, was built in 1911 and served as Burke’s first two-room schoolhouse, then known as Burke Elementary School. In the 1920s, a third room was added to the property. As Burke’s population continued to grow, a bigger school was needed, and so in 1939 the school moved to a new location and Whiteoaks was converted to a residence. It was purchased by a neighbor.
In the 1940s, the 12-foot ceilings were lowered to add a second floor with two bedrooms and a full bath as well as additional storage space. Electricity was also added to power the Pullman-style kitchen.
In 1950, the Cornelson family purchased the property and it has remained with them until now. They have worked over the years to modernize the property, adding air conditioning as well as a sunroom. Improvements have been made to open up the rear wing into an open concept kitchen and breakfast room with a sunroom overlooking the private rear yard.
I have the honor of listing this little piece of Northern Virginia history for sale starting Sept. 16th. The home will be open to the public during our open house on Saturday, Sept. 18th from 1-4 p.m.
I hope you’ll come check out this amazing property—I’d love to meet you!
Jennifer Mack has more than 16 years of experience in the real estate industry, with her team servicing Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 703-672-0038.
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