Richmond’s UNOS loses monopoly on organ transplantation

Richmond’s UNOS loses monopoly on organ transplantation

Surge in warmth coming Thursday

The federal government will break up the contract to oversee organ transplantation in the United States, a blow to the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing, which has been the contract’s sole operator for almost 40 years. 

In an announcement Wednesday, the Health Resources and Services Administration, which oversees UNOS, said it would reform, modernize and bring transparency the transplantation of kidneys, livers and other organs. 

The split comes after years of criticism toward UNOS and a Congressional investigation in which critics said UNOS’s software is out of date, the number of transplanted organs falls short of expectation and that UNOS failed to discipline its struggling member organizations. Those missteps have led to patient deaths and an increased call for care, five U.S. senators said in a hearing last year. 

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“For too long it’s been clear that UNOS has fallen short of the requirements for this contract and the expectations of Americans waiting for a transplant,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Wednesday in a statement. 

In 1986, UNOS won the first federal contract to manage organ transplantation in the country. It has won every contract since, but the contract expires this year. 

UNOS, on North Fourth Street in downtown, has 450 employees, according to its website.  It welcomes a competitive bidding process, it said. 

“We believe we have the experience and expertise required to best serve the nation’s patients and to help implement HRSA’s proposed initiative,” UNOS said. 

As part of its investigation, the Senate Finance Committee recommended organ transplantation be split into five contracts: policy development, compliance, patient safety monitoring, IT infrastructure and logistics. 

UNOS names interim CEO amid Congressional investigation

Molly McCarthy, vice chair of UNOS’ patient advisory committee, said numerous organizations inside and outside organ transplantation could vie for these contracts. Any number of large technology providers in the U.S. could improve UNOS’ IT infrastructure, and even online retail giant Amazon could improve logistics. 

“You don’t have to have an MD to run most of the parts of the business,” McCarthy said. 

Other organizations that handle living kidney donation, such as the National Kidney Donation Organization, could handle policy development. 

HRSA also said it will modernize the IT system on which organ transplantation depends. 

U.S. senators rip Richmond-based UNOS for mismanagement of organ transplantation

Diane Brockmeier, the CEO of Mid-America Transplant, a regional organ procurement organization, said last summer that UNOS’ software is slow and out of date. The White House’s United States Digital Services issued a report criticizing UNOS’ technological capabilities, saying staffers enter data by hand, leading to error. 

Brian Shepard, who resigned as CEO of UNOS last year, defended UNOS’s technology in August, saying it is operational 99.9% of the time. 

On Wednesday, UNOS said it is committed to working with the federal government and others “to assist in carrying out these reforms and to do our part to improve how we serve America’s organ donors, transplant patients and their families.”

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9-year-old wins Prince William Spelling Bee with 'gallivat'

9-year-old wins Prince William Spelling Bee with 'gallivat'

“Gallivat” is not a word you hear everyday. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an East Indian ship propelled by sails and oars and often armed and used by pirates.” 

But it was just one of the thousands of words Siya Sampath was prepared to spell at the 45th Prince William Regional Spelling Bee on Tuesday night. And she spelled that one and 15 others correctly to top 40 other spellers from around the county to win the bee.

At just 9 years old and representing J.W. Alvey Elementary School in Haymarket, Sampath was the third youngest speller competing in this year’s bee, her second regional spelling bee. She competed last year as a third-grader, when Ronald Reagan Middle School seventh-grader Peyton DeMichele took home the top prize after spelling 11 correct words.

“I studied all the words three times each at least,” Sampath said after the event. “There were only two I didn’t know.”

While she admitted to being nervous for a few words, she was still confident in the hours of studying she had put in with her mom.

“I would quiz myself on all the words and afterwards my mom would quiz me on the words I got wrong,” she said.

Sampath’s knack for spelling was challenged by the 40 other talented spellers, all winners of bees at their elementary, intermediate or middle schools. Contestants spelled words like “lithophone” (a class of percussion instruments), “baptismal,” “aberration” (the act of wandering away), “kookaburra” (a large Australasian kingfisher), “fervorous,” “idiosyncratic” and “coriander” with ease.

Aadya Pokarel of Pennington School finished in fifth place after being eliminated in the 10th round. Two spellers tied for third place after being eliminated in the 11th round: seventh-grader Peter Layton from Woodbridge Middle School and sixth-grader Vincent Chu from George Hampton Middle School.

Dhanvika Ragi Spelling Bee

Dhanvika Ragi, 11, a sixth-grader at Gainesville Middle School, spells a word in the early rounds of the Prince William Regional Spelling Bee. Ragi was the runner-up in the event. 

That left Sampath facing off against Dhanvika Ragi, 11, a sixth-grader at Gainesville Middle School, for the championship. The two successfully spelled words like “zeitgeist” (the spirit of the time), “dactylic” (of or consisting of a metrical foot of three syllables), “a posteriori” (what cannot be known except from experiences) and “graticule” (a network of lines of latitude and longitude).

But in the 15th round, Ragi was stumped by “gypsophila,” a plant of a large genus of Old World herbs having small delicate paniculate flowers and five-clawed petals. Sampath then correctly spelled “castellated” (built or formed like a large fortified building) and the championship word of “gallivat” to secure first place.

Sampath is the youngest winner of the Prince William bee since 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison won in 2012. The bee is open to students through the eighth grade. 

The bee, held at Gar-Field High School, was presented by InsideNoVa and the Bel Air Woman’s Club. The Prince William County Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism sponsored the event. 

“Regardless of the outcome for you this evening, each one of you is a champion,” Karen Attreed, president of the woman’s club, said at the start of the bee. “You are representing your respective schools. All of us, teachers, parents, mentors and your peers are very proud of you.”

Sampath will compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Maryland from May 28-June 2, which will be aired on ION and Bounce television networks. She plans to use her same studying techniques to prepare for the competition this spring, where she will spell against 200 other regional champions from across the country.

“I may need a little more work,” she said. “There’s over 100,000 words in the dictionary.”


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Virginia history standards debate wraps up, with board vote near

Virginia history standards debate wraps up, with board vote near


At Mount Vernon, the historic estate where tourists flock to learn about George Washington, dozens of parents, teachers and education leaders tucked into a conference room to weigh one of Virginia’s hottest topics: how to teach history in public school.

The comments stretched late into the night as more than 90 speakers took their two-minute opportunity last week to offer an opinion on the revised standards of learning, which set the framework for what students in the commonwealth will learn in social studies classes from kindergarten through 12th grade.

There’s usually little attention on the bureaucratic revision process that happens every seven years as required by state law. But this year’s review became contentious, drawing national scrutiny as versions of the proposed standards were criticized for their framing and omissions.

With the third set of proposed standards being considered before an expected vote by the state Board of Education next month, supporters praise them as being a fairer representation of history that better matches the state’s law banning “inherently divisive” topics in the classroom. Critics are concerned about limited representation of marginalized communities, unrealistic expectations for students and the rushed process to develop the standards.

This dispute over social studies has become part of the education culture wars as lawmakers increasingly introduce legislation limiting what schools can teach about race, gender and inequality. Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the national debate has shifted from arguing about what gets included in standards to mandating topics that are excluded.

“This notion of, we’re going to tell you what you can’t teach,” Paska said. “That is a very different tone.”

In Virginia, a state with a complex past, those debates about how to present its history extend beyond the classroom. They include tearing down Confederate statues in Richmond and updating tours of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, to include additional details about the enslaved people who lived there, including the story of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on the estate with whom Jefferson had children.

Some of Virginia’s storied locations were sites for the public forums hosted by state education officials that ended this week, where people could weigh in on the proposed social studies standards. At the Mount Vernon forum, 17-year-old Yahney-Marie Sangare approached the microphone in the small conference hall.

“The truth is that no history exists without opinion or context, the way we teach and learn is deliberate,” she said. “To unravel the trends of history, we must fundamentally embrace varying schools of critical thought. We may not make educational standards weapons of ideology.”

The crowd had thinned by the time the Alexandria City High School junior — the 61st speaker of the night — had her turn.

“See,” one woman in the crowd whispered to another. “This is why I want to stay.”

Long road for revision process

The standards debate in Virginia began in August when appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on the Board of Education rejected a 400-plus-page version of the standards started under Youngkin predecessor Ralph Northam (D).

The Department of Education proposed an alternative 53-page version of the standards in November that quickly drew criticism from left-leaning politicians and education advocates for generally placing less emphasis on marginalized groups. There were errors, including a characterization of Indigenous people as “immigrants,” and omitted references to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth holidays.

Jillian Balow, who led the Education Department, was sent back to fix the mistakes and integrate content from the August version. Balow, who resigned as superintendent this month, came back with was a third version of the standards in January, and that is the draft that is up for consideration.

The newest standards include language that notes U.S. history is complicated and must be taught with nuance. There are also grade-level changes that place greater emphasis on Native Americans. The new guidelines, unlike the previous version, mandate discussions of racism, and students would learn, for the first time in Virginia, that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War, not just one cause.

But critics question how state education officials got to this version, particularly whether the standards are politically motivated. During review forums, they have raised concerns about a state list of top contributors to the proposal that includes organizations such as the conservative-leaning Civics Alliance, Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Hillsdale College.

Amber Northern, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said some of the criticism leveled at the proposed revisions was misguided, after several speakers at a Charlottesville forum — held a few miles from Monticello — condemned things that have been part of the standards since 2015, including the years when Northam was in office.

“I actually think that a lot of the comments tonight have not been accurate in terms of the partisanship,” she said in an interview. “It’s sort of been alluded that there’s … right-leaning partisanship because we have a Republican governor.”

In a statement, the Civics Alliance and the National Association of Scholars called the latest version of the standards a more concise and appropriate approach than the August proposal, which had become “lengthy, repetitive and extremely difficult to understand,” the groups said.

Youngkin said in a statement that the January standards reflect input from an array of subject-matter experts, residents and organizations.

“The current draft honors a robust set of diverse voices, figures and moments in history and prepares our students to be informed stewards of our future,” the governor said. “Our goal is to make Virginia’s standards the best in the nation.”

On a corner near the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, about 30 demonstrators lined the sidewalk with signs, protesting the January standards. Organized by the Hamkae Center, which describes itself as organizing “Asian Americans to achieve social, economic, and racial justice in Virginia,” the protesters called for more representation of diverse communities — specifically more Asian American and LGBTQ history.

Zowee Aquino, policy and communications lead at the Hamkae Center, said the January standards only discussed Asian American history twice.

“With the amount of feedback from Virginians, I’m really hoping that the board will take it as a wake-up call that, no, the public does not like these standards,” Aquino said.

Inside the library, Jaya Nachnani, a 19-year-old freshman at William & Mary, criticized the standards for excluding mentions of the Stonewall riots and the Defense of Marriage Act, and referring to the October holiday as Columbus Day rather than Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“With this curriculum, we are erasing a lot of history,” Nachnani said. “While some of it may be bad, how are we as Americans supposed to move forward if we do not acknowledge and learn about all of our pasts?”

Labor organizers argue that the January standards remove most teachings on the impact of the industrial revolution on working families and lessons about the rise of organized labor.

Eric Pacheco, a father of three students in Stafford County and member of IBEW Local 26, a union of electrical workers, pleaded with the board that lessons on unions and labor are important to students and understanding American history.

“We don’t need less labor history,” Pacheco said. “We need a whole lot more of it.”

Education leaders also raised concerns about the expectations for young students to learn complex material that isn’t “developmentally appropriate” for the assigned grade levels. A collection of state and national education groups issued a response to the January proposal, calling it “unrealistic.”

The standards also contain “a vast quantity of rote memorization that is neither useful nor likely for content knowledge retention,” the organizations wrote. They urged the board to instead adopt proposed “Collaborative Standards” that some of the groups wrote as an alternative in December.

The groups point to a standard that requires second-graders to learn about issues such as the War of 1812.

“With 24 people listed in one standard alone … the time it would take to teach this one standard is unrealistic, it would take weeks,” said Jennifer Brown, an educational specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools who shared similar concerns from other elementary teachers.\

Neeley Minton, lead coach for social studies instruction in Albemarle County Public Schools, cited the more than 100 new topics added to the proposed standards. Covering so much new material would not allow enough time for sixth-graders to think deeply about topics such as urban renewal and Vinegar Hill, a majority-Black neighborhood in Charlottesville that was razed in the 1960s.

“Inquiry is what makes the facts stick,” Minton said during the forum in Charlottesville. “Learning facts in isolation does not lead to learning at all.”

Chris Suarez contributed to this report.

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Fauquier County School Board adopts stricter standards for challenging books

Fauquier County School Board adopts stricter standards for challenging books

The Fauquier County School Board has unanimously approved adding language to its instructional material complaint policy, making it possible for only a parent or legal guardian of a student to formally request the removal of library books and instructional or supplementary materials used in the classroom.

Deputy Superintendent Major Warner told FauquierNow that before the adoption of the new language Monday, the policy was vague about who could file a complaint with the School Board to remove learning materials from schools. He noted the recommendation came from the School Board’s attorney, who was concerned about people without a child in the school system making formal requests to remove learning material in schools.

“One of the recommendations that was made to [school administrators] was to consider adding language that differentiated who could formally remove [learning] material or who could formally request that action to be taken,” Warner said in an interview following the vote.

Warner clarified this language does not prevent people from coming to board meetings and airing grievances.

“Anybody could email or call and say, ‘I don’t think this should be in our schools.’ That still remains intact,” Warner said.

In December, following several book challenges from the parents with the parental rights group Moms for Liberty, the School Board unanimously approved a new identification and parental notification policy – mandated by the state – that required teachers and school administrators to identify instructional materials containing “sexually explicit content” and established a system for notifying parents who may request alternative curriculum for their children.

Moms for Liberty suspended their book challenges in September.

Although the school system’s policy meets the state’s regulations, Warner’s office created a 17-person committee made up of librarians, teachers, administrators, parents and students to develop additional guidelines for administrators and staff.

It’s unclear what those final recommendations will look like, but some Fauquier schools have already implemented a process asking parents to sign permission slips granting their children to access library books.

The committee’s policy recommendations will be presented to the School Board later this year.

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Prince William Regional Spelling Bee set for March 21

Prince William Regional Spelling Bee set for March 21

Forty-five young spellers representing Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park will compete Tuesday, March 21, for the right to represent the community at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this spring.

The spellers all won elementary or middle school spelling bees or home-school association bees to advance to the regional bee, presented by InsideNoVa/Prince William and the Bel Air Woman’s Club.  The Prince William County Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism is an additional sponsor of this year’s bee. 

Tuesday’s regional bee will be at Gar-Field High School at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

Last year’s winner was Peyton DeMichele from Ronald Reagan Middle School in Gainesville, but she is not competing this year. DeMichele was eliminated in the third round of the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For the second consecutive year, the youngest competitor in this year’s regional bee is Scarlett Comstock, 8, a second-grader at Old Bridge Elementary School.  Another 8-year-old competing this year is Nora Biddier, a third-grader at Weems Elementary School. Another seven spellers competing are just 9 years old. The competition is open to students through the eighth grade.

The winner of the Prince William Regional Spelling Bee will advance to the national spelling bee at National Harbor, Md., from May 28-June 3.   

Meet the 45 spellers who will compete in this year’s Prince William Regional Spelling Bee.


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Poolesville students report nausea, headaches during school construction

Poolesville students report nausea, headaches during school construction


During the weeks that Poolesville High School has been under construction, several students have reported nausea, headaches and difficulty concentrating.

The students and their parents say the symptoms started in February and are a reaction to fumes being emitted from tar used in renovations. They have asked Montgomery County school officials to pause the work until students’ health concerns are addressed.

Krisna Becker, a parent of two at the school, said one of her daughters texted her on Feb. 14 asking to be picked up early because of how strong the fumes were from the construction work. Other students and teachers had also been complaining that morning. The school ended up releasing early that day because of an odor that came from “work done outside of school hours and windy conditions,” Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said.

“That was the first extreme event that happened,” Becker, 49, said in an interview. Since then, the potency of the “fumes” has varied, but “some days it’s really extreme” and even on the days it’s not, “it still causes headaches,” she said.

Construction at Poolesville High began in June 2022, and it is expected to be completed in 2024. The project renovates and expands the square footage of the school.

Becker has headed up a campaign urging other parents to advocate for a temporary stop to the tar work. She wrote about the impacts the fumes have had on her daughters, who stay after school sometimes to rehearse for the school’s production of “Into the Woods.” In her letter to the other parents, Becker also listed safety concerns. In one example, she wrote the project’s chemical list and material data notes that the work includes the use of an asphalt primer and advises: “Avoid prolonged breathing of vapor and use only in adequate ventilation. Repeated and prolonged overexposure to solvent vapor may cause brain and nervous system damage, respiratory tract irritation, dizziness, or loss of consciousness.” Becker wrote that parents and teachers should have been told about potential health risks in advance.

Montgomery County schools said it and its contractors follow all federal and state laws. “Safety is the top priority for our school system when constructing and renovating buildings,” Baxter said.

School officials have tried to reserve tarring for times when students aren’t in classrooms — like after school or over the weekends, Baxter said. The construction team checks the forecast and wind conditions each day to evaluate the work day, but the tar has to heat up during the school day to get evening work done.

In a letter last week, Seth Adams, the school system’s facilities management director, wrote to Poolesville parents that additional measures were being put in place, including redirecting students to different entrances away from the work and placing temporary seals around doors and windows that face the construction zone. The school system has also placed activated charcoal filters designed to trap gases on the mechanical equipment.

“I think the list of exposure reducing activities is a good list,” said Patricia Fabian, an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University, but the effectiveness is “hard to know unless you’re measuring.” Sometimes, it can take days for fumes to dry out, and students can still be exposed to some emissions, Fabian said.

However, those mitigation tactics haven’t worked, particularly for students in the theater program who stay after school for rehearsals when construction work is being done, Becker said. Plus, the tar being heated up during the school day is still causing symptoms, she added.

This week, the school system announced it was pausing roofing activities until after a spring musical performance at the school.

“This decision was not made due to safety concerns, but for concerns that construction activities may impact the overall attendance of the event,” Baxter said in an email. “Students have been preparing for this event and the decision was made to support their hard work.”

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