A coalition of parents angered by the months-long suspension of in-person learning in Virginia's largest school system has submitted thousands of signatures petitioning for the recall of a school board member.
The petition submitted Monday to the Fairfax County Circuit Court by the Open FCPS Coalition accuses Elaine Tholen of neglecting her duty when she and other board members opted against in-person learning for roughly 12 months during the pandemic.
Petition organizers say the extended reliance on online learning ran contrary to scientific advice and desires of a majority of parents.
The coalition said it submitted more than 5,000 signatures, which would be well over the 3,500 or so required.
Under Virginia's unique recall law, Tholen can now ask a judge to toss out the petition. It would then be up to a judge to determine whether to dismiss the petition or hold a trial of sorts to determine whether her removal is warranted. If so, she would be removed from office and a special election would be held.
Tholen, in a phone interview, said she has “been in education for a very long time. It's been my career, and I've always put students first.”
In a written statement, she added, "When almost 60% of the Dranesville district voters chose me, they knew I would stand up for their children’s interests and educational needs. ... I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week.”
Fairfax County Public Schools also issued a statement supporting Tholen, calling the petition “misguided.”
“The decision to provide learning through a virtual format last year was a direct result of the circumstances and the health and medical advice available at the time," the school system said “The School Board and FCPS leadership was responsible for ensuring the health and wellbeing of its 189,000 students during the unprecedented circumstances of a pandemic. FCPS moved to reopen its schools as quickly as circumstances allowed and did so ahead of many other school districts in the area. The decision to conduct classes online was a difficult decision, but it was the right one.”
The school system has said students will return this fall for in-person learning five days a week, but coalition member Ian Tompkins said the system has been unclear about details including whether teachers will be required to join students in the classroom or be allowed to teach remotely, and whether young students will be required to wear masks.
“Parents have been left in the dark about these issues, and as such have real doubts as to whether the Fairfax County school system is even serious about opening up full time, in-person for the fall,” said Tompkins, a former school board candidate, at a press conference.
Tholen is one of three members of the 12-person board targeted for recall by the parents' coalition. It is still collecting signatures for board members Laura Jane Cohen and Abrar Omeish.
The recall effort in Fairfax County is one among dozens across the country pursued in the past year by parents angry over pandemic-related school closures and, more recently, concern about how teachers and school systems address racism and race relations.