A group of conservative activists in Fairfax County has announced a petition trying to remove Laura Jane Cohen and Elaine Tholen from the Fairfax County School Board because the school board has been hesitant to mandate students return to physical classrooms in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic.
The group, which calls itself the Open FCPS Coalition (OFC), says that out of over 1.1 million residents of Fairfax County, they were able to find 50 people who believe the two Democrats should be removed after “their dereliction of duties” that supposedly came from encouraging the use of distance learning while public health officials suggested social distancing was needed to keep infection rates as low as possible.
Throughout last year’s campaign, conservatives often railed against teachers unions and claimed wealthy donors such as George Soros were funding the campaigns of Democratic school board candidates. Laura Jane Cohen’s opponent, an incumbent who she beat by 8.6 percent, went as far as to say these fictitious donors were pushing a “radical agenda” that would “really change the entire structure of Fairfax County.” This new group, whose membership represents less than .0045 percent of the county’s population, has continued this line of argument by claiming the pair of school board members have “consistently put the needs of their financial supporters/donors above the needs of the people they vowed to serve” by encouraging the use of distance learning.
The group’s announcement came a few weeks after Fairfax County Public Schools announced they were starting the process of having some students return to in person instruction. While the group claims the school board only supports teachers and doesn’t care about students, this announcement prompted a lot of criticism from teachers because they were given an extremely short time frame before having to make a decision about how they’d proceed while also trying to protect their health during the middle of a pandemic that’s caused over 225,000 deaths (606 of which were in Fairfax County as of October 25, 2020).
The selection of Laura Jane Cohen and Elaine Tholen as the targets of the recall petition was also an interesting development considering the entire school board has encouraged distance learning. One FCPS teacher who’s familiar with the community dynamics surrounding the school board suggested this might be because most of the group’s 50 members living in those districts. This also coincides with how Langley and McLean High Schools, which are in the Dranesville district, were the only high schools where the majority of parents wanted their children to immediately return to in person classes.
It was also highlighted that these are two of the more conservative districts in the county. The Springfield District, which Laura Jane represents, for instance, is currently represented by a Republican on the Board of Supervisors. And that supervisor is the only republican who has won an election in Fairfax County during the last two years. Dranesville, which is represented by Elaine Tholen, is represented by all Democrats like most of the county, but Hillary Clinton’s vote total in 2016 was 4.6 percent lower than her totals countywide.
While all of this is taking place, the county’s superintendent, Dr. Scott Brabrand, has proposed a timeline that could see students start to return to in person classes as early as November. The board has already asked Brabrand to pilot the program and provide the board with a report on how the program went at its November 12th meeting. Presumably, this would help provide information the board needs to move forward with a plan.
With the announcement coming with a week left in the election and the school board already moving forward on plans to return to in person classrooms, many community members are left wondering what the true motivation is for effort. The candidate who lost her seat to Laura Jane Cohen, for instance, has remained active with the Republican Party and even served on a panel run by the Fairfax County Republican Party advocating for homeschooling students instead of having them attend public schools. Those familiar with the community have therefore suggested this might be a political stunt designed to invigorate the right before the election and potentially help conservatives like Elizabeth Schultz who’d be interested in running for the board.
If the conservative activist group wants to be successful in its efforts to remove Tholen and Cohen from office, they will need to convince 10 percent of voters in their respective districts to sign their petition. As it stands now, the group even admitted in the press release announcing the petition that it’d be a “time consuming effort” that’s far from guaranteed to be successful.