School Zone: Safety in the aftermath of Uvalde shooting

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

School systems detail safety measures after Texas shooting

What it is: It’s been more than a week since a gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers.

In the days that followed, several D.C.-area school systems increased security as a precaution. An elementary school in Charles County, Maryland, received a threat of mass violence hours before the Texas shooting.


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Last week’s school shooting, and the investigations that have followed, have brought the topic of gun laws to the forefront of the national conversation. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators met to discuss common ground.

What it means: Many D.C.-area jurisdictions have spent the last few weeks finalizing budgets, with a renewed focus on safety and, in some cases, the role of police in schools. With a few weeks before the summer break, counties are evaluating what more can be done to keep students safe.

Some of the projects in the works were planned or underway before the Texas shooting, but the incident has prompted school systems to move forward with urgency.

Regional snapshot: Fairfax County Public Schools, in Virginia, planned in 2019 to ensure every school had a security vestibule, an extra hallway at the entrance that requires visitors to be allowed in by a staff member. However, the pandemic put the initiative on hold.

Last week, the school board pushed the superintendent to finalize the project. It will be paid for using local, state, federal and grant money.

In Arlington, security upgrades are under consideration as part of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan. A school system spokesman told WTOP all but 16 schools have had their entrances redone.

Other proposals include upgrades to schools’ key and public announcement systems, which it considers security initiatives.

In Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school system, county leadership held a news conference earlier this week to discuss school safety. Superintendent Monifa McKnight said all exterior doors should be locked during the day, and almost every school has a vestibule.

For the two schools that don’t, McKnight said, “there is still a locked door that a staff member must open for any visitor who is coming into our building.”



McKnight and Police Chief Marcus Jones emphasized that police are told to move in immediately in any active shooter situation.

In a statement, Prince George’s County school leaders said the county will be “upholding safety measures that protect staff and students who enter our schoolhouses.”

Talking points: At a work session this week, Arlington Public Schools’ Chief Operating Officer John Mayo said he posed this question to a county board member: “A week ago, if APS was provided additional funding, could we accelerate some or all of our safety projects? The simple answer to that will be ‘yes.’”

The Falls Church City school board said in a statement, “As members of the Falls Church City School Board, we are horrified by the recent mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde. Innocent people were killed senselessly, children among them. We are most directly involved in trying to prevent school shootings like Uvalde, but as elected representatives of the City of Falls Church, both incidents require an immediate response.”

Enrollment declining at community colleges 

This week, WTOP’s Mike Murillo took a deeper dive into community college enrollment, finding a decline in student numbers for community colleges in the D.C. region.

In a two-part series, he spoke to college leaders and students about how to address the enrollment challenge as well.

WTOP caught up with Mike to learn a little bit more about his findings.

Q: What are the trends regarding community college enrollment in the D.C. region?

A: Community colleges around the D.C. region are seeing what, frankly, community colleges around the nation are seeing — a steady decline in students enrolling in classes. From financial hardships to family commitments to declining birthrates, there are many reasons that area colleges believe student populations are going down.

The story of the decline starts several years before the pandemic began, and actually started after the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008, when all colleges saw very high enrollment numbers. Since then, all higher education institutions have seen student totals go down, but community colleges are those that have been hit the hardest.

Q: What, if any, role did COVID play?

A: COVID in no way started the decline, but it sure did make matters worse for schools around here. Comparing enrollment numbers from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021, community colleges in Maryland saw a 14% drop in the number of students enrolling at the state’s community colleges; it was a 9% fall in Virginia.

Why did COVID have this impact? Well, community colleges around here noted a number of factors, but also the fact that online learning wasn’t for everyone. Also, unlike the Great Recession, when there were no jobs to be had, as we move toward exiting the pandemic there is no shortage of jobs, which also means not as many people are rushing to learn a new trade in order to land work.

Q: What strategies are being used to attract more students?

A: Talking to the leaders of the area’s community colleges, there are a lot of ideas out there to try to boost enrollment numbers, and this includes looking to attract more than just the average 18- to 24-year-old college student, and bring in older adults who may have not considered college when they were younger.

There are also plans to provide more flexible classes, shorter duration programs for in-demand fields, and more classes for earning certificates instead of degrees. Also, there are plans to cooperate rather than compete with four-year colleges and universities, so students can attend community college and university classes at the same time.

For those dealing with financial hardships, money from the CARES Act has also helped bring more students back to the classroom.

Virtual learning may have not been for everyone, but some students really liked it. In fact, Prince George’s Community College says 68% of its students still want virtual classes. This means the college and others plan to offer more online classes. Also, in the future, expect more dual enrollment opportunities for high schoolers, allowing them to get both a high school diploma, and associate’s degree diploma at the same time.

Listen to Mike’s conversation with Megan Cloherty and Luke Garrett on the DMV Download.

 

[Read more of Mike’s community college reporting on WTOP.com]

By the numbers
Some of the data that caught my eye this week.

About 19% of students in Arlington, Virginia, are classified in a red “at risk” category regarding literacy skills, according to a report from the county’s English Language Arts program.

Three schools have 50 to 60% of the student population requiring intervention, the report found.

Read more about the report’s findings on WTOP.com

What Scott’s Reading

  • Arlington School Board OKs unionizing for teachers and staff [WTOP]
  • Former Corinthian students get federal student debt erased [WTOP] 
  • For 2022 graduates, pandemic dominated high school, but also brought bonding, new experiences [Bethesda Beat]
  • Potomac Falls HS student charged in bomb threat, security increased: Sheriff [NBC Washington]
  • Virginia lawmakers approve budget with tax cuts, spending increases [Washington Post]
  • ‘Not an ordinary class’: Prince William Co. high chef instructor earns state recognition [WTOP]
  • Fairfax speller eliminated in semifinals of Scripps National Spelling Bee [InsideNova]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Golf and dim sum: With things expected to cool down a bit after Thursday’s storms, we’re planning to head to TopGolf at National Harbor for a fun outdoor activity. Perhaps we’ll follow that with dinner at Han Palace, Woodley Park’s newest dim sum restaurant. The chicken and vegetable dumplings sound outstanding.

Keep in touch: Have a school story idea we should know about? Send it to sgelman@wtop.com.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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