The Fairfax County School Board made a decision to use federal funds to fix their long-suffering HVAC systems, but parents aren’t thrilled with that decision since some of those funds were to be used to help disabled students in the area.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many students have had to resort to online learning so as not to fall behind. While some have been able to keep up, others particularly students who are considered disabled have had a much harder time at it. 

In order to try to alleviate the issue, the Fairfax County Public Schools received a grant from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund otherwise known as an ESSER III grant. The use of these funds is to help safely reopen and sustain the operations of schools as well as address the emotional, social, academic, and health needs of the students brought on by the recent pandemic.

“Maintenance of equity provisions will help ensure that schools and LEAs [Local Education Agencies] serving large proportions of historically underserved groups of students – including students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and students experiencing homelessness – receive an equitable share of state and local funds as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact,” according to a document released by the U. S. Department of Education released a document June 9.

In an effort to fulfill the requirements, the school board made the decision to put much of that grant money into fixing the school’s HVAC systems. Several public-school systems such as Stafford County have in recent months upgraded their HVAC systems with items such as bi-polarizing filters to keep the potential intrusion of the virus in schools to a minimum. 

But many parents, especially those who have special education students, are concerned with the fact that little of the ESSER grant funds have been used to help their kids. One parent, Eileen Chollet, sent a letter to the editor at the Washington Post May 25 in response to a story run by the Post two days earlier regarding the state of education for disabled children in the nation. In her letter, Chollet noted that of the nearly $350 million that Fairfax County Public Schools have gotten in federal relief funding including ESSER, only 0.2 percent of that money had been allocated for use in special education and support services which in terms of spending only amounts to about $27 per student.

Chollet also spoke to Fairfax County Times regarding the FCPS’ decision to use that money on the HVAC system. She said that the school board justified their spending in this area as something that can be taken care of now as opposed to the having to negotiate with teachers’ unions in regards to funds being spent in the classroom. In a recent school board meeting video, the matter is considered low hanging fruit.

“ESSER funds came with a list of 12 allowable uses, five of which mention special education supports or services and supports to other disadvantaged groups including homeless, ESL and foster care,” said Chollet. “It’s a standard bureaucratic maneuver to take windfalls like this and use them against long-standing wish lists.” 

During the FCPS School Board’s hearing regarding the use of ESSER funds June 7, many residents spoke up about how to use the funds, some of those speakers discussed using those funds for classes and services for disabled children. One speaker, Lauren McCoughey who is a mother of three children, two of those being special education students, spoke about using the money to invest in Adaptive Technology Services and hiring and training staff in the use of these technologies in order to help disabled students.  

“Nothing is as magical as helping a student to communicate more fully to read previously inaccessible text, to interact with their teachers and peers in ways that were not accessible without new technologies,” said McCoughey during the meeting.

Another parent of a disabled student, Wilda Smith Ferguson, expressed concerns about the schools’ decisions that she claims don’t take her child’s needs into consideration. Smith-Ferguson suggested that the most vulnerable students who rely heavily on teachers and support staff such as her daughter take priority since they cannot speak for themselves. “The money should trickle up rather than trickle down to the disabled students who are the most vulnerable, those with medical and cognitive disabilities” said Smith-Ferguson. 

However, the ESSER funds aren’t just meant for students disabled or otherwise. Kimberly Adam, President of the Fairfax Education Association also spoke at the meeting and asked that the money be used towards health care costs so that school staff’s 2 percent raise wouldn’t be in jeopardy. Adam also asked that back pay be given to all employees who continued working during the pandemic, and an additional bonus to those that continued to work in the schools during the pandemic before vaccines were available. They also want increased pay for substitute teachers who can cover for teachers when they get sick or need time off. 

While HVAC repairs would fall under one of the allowable uses for the funds according to U.S. Department of Education policy, namely in activities necessary to maintain operation of and continuity of services in local education agencies, it does fall at the bottom of the list of 12 priorities while providing material and support for disabled students ranks much higher.

Fairfax County Public Schools are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education due to reports of the use of these funds being used sparingly on disabled students.

“OCR is concerned that the district has failed to provide a “free appropriate public education” to each qualified student with a disability as required by federal law and denied students with disabilities equal access to education.” Stated by Kimberly Richey, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in a letter to FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

The investigation into FCPS began in late 2020 under the Trump administration, other large school systems such as the Indiana Department of Education, the Seattle Public School System, and the Los Angeles Unified School District are also under investigation for reports of similar actions taken.

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