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Faison Center Plans Partial In-Person Return August 3

Front edifice of Faison Center
The Faison Center, a private school in Richmond, will reopen this fall - unlike Richmond Public Schools, which have pivoted to remote learning. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond’s public-school system won’t be returning to in-person instruction anytime soon. But some private schools, like the Faison Center in Richmond, have announced plans to resume at least partial in-person instruction in a few weeks.

The Faison Center, a private day school for young people with autism, plans to rotate weeks of in-person and virtual instruction. The school’s reopening plan says the rotation will be maintained “at the discretion of Faison administration” to allow for no more than 10 people per classroom (staff and students combined).

In the school’s plan released this week, Faison CEO Brian McCann writes “in his school reopening guidance document, the Governor stated that ‘some school communities’ members will get sick…as the pandemic continues to take a toll on all aspects of our society.’ The risk of contracting the virus exists everywhere. Just as with all plans to reopen anything in this environment—schools, businesses, recreation facilities—the purpose of this plan is to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19.”

The school’s August reopening is welcome news for some parents like Todd Howard. He’s a single dad, and his 14-year-old son Brandon has autism, and is non-verbal. During the pandemic, Howard would often send Brandon to a babysitter, or to his sister’s house while he went to work.

“He's not used to being cooped up 24 hours a day,” Howard said. “He’s always wanting to go out but you can’t explain to him that he can't go outside.”

Howard said Brandon hasn’t done well with virtual instruction so far. “It's hard for him to keep attention,” Howard said. “He’s not much of a TV person. So, for the virtual stuff - he doesn't want to deal with it.”

But some have concerns about the reopening. A group of Faison staff members are organizing in an attempt to unionize, and are urging the school to reconsider an all-virtual reopening. They’ve pushed for more information from the school, and sent a list of demands to leadership.

In a press release released Thursday, the group, organizing as Second Staff, detailed a number of concerns including no hazard pay for staff that have continued to work onsite; not enough transparency about potential COVID exposure or isolation for staff who have traveled; fear of retaliation for speaking out about concerns.

In their press release, Second Staff states that they are trying to build a better workplace that goes beyond safety during the pandemic. “Faison lacks proper sensory deprivation rooms, significant de-escalation training to avoid safety separations and restraints, psychologists and therapists on site, and a liveable wage for its employees to compensate for the physical and mental trauma we accumulate over time,” the release states. “These are long term goals of our organization.”

Faison’s reopening plan states that “staff are asked to contact Human Resources as soon as possible if they have a condition that would put them at higher risk for severe illness, or other circumstance that would prevent their return to work in-person. HR will work with each individual staff member to determine options for accommodations.”

Faison CEO Brian McCann did not respond to VPM’s questions by deadline, including a question clarifying what accommodations will be provided for staff, and for what reasons.

According to the Second Staff press release, “staff who have voiced reservations about returning to campus who are not immunocompromised have been met with dismissive responses. Our CEO has also threatened to garnish the wages of those who publicly speak out against the company for life.”

The school received a $2-5 million federal PPP loan, which required the school to use 75% of its loan amount on payroll in April. According to the Second Staff letter, Faison staff were furloughed at the end of March and hired back on April 20th. The PPP loan was approved April 11 and Faison reported the funds retained 340 jobs.

Editor's note: Shortly after we published this article, Second Staff reached out with a second version of their press release, linked here. We updated a link in the body of the article to refer to the first version of the press release.

Editor’s note: We should disclose that the Virginia Foundation for Public Media received $1.59 million in PPP funds.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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