Virginia’s Arlington County, the District and nearby Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Charles County, Maryland, students are packing their bags and settling into a new school year brimming with changes.
Just one week after thousands of D.C.-area students returned to Northern Virginia classrooms, the rest of the region’s local school systems started ringing their first bells of the school year. Choose a county below for the latest back-to-school coverage from WTOP.
Prince George’s County
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks was visiting schools on Monday morning as students started back up for the new school year.
“We’re excited,” Alsobrooks said. “We have a new school CEO, we have six new buildings that we’re opening, we have children who are excited, we have teachers and administrators who are ready for them. So we’re expecting a great year, we’ve been preparing to make sure the kids have a safe year, that they have a productive year,” she said.
WTOP’s John Domen was in Prince George’s County as newly minted Superintendent Millard House II boarded a bus at a lot in Upper Marlboro on the first day of school.
“We’re very excited, very eager to to ensure that every student receives the quality education that we want them to receive,” House said as he was touring schools late Monday morning. “Every day during that first week, things will get smoother, students will understand what the rituals and routines look like, so that we can move forward with the learning in the manner that we expect,” House said.
The county’s school-level efforts to curb violence also include a new requirement for clear backpacks. Those in grades 9-12 who are in “Non-Traditional Programs (North, South and Middle)” are expected to wear clear backpacks throughout the year. Middle school students (grades 6-8) are not required to wear clear backpacks but may need to do so in the spring pending an evaluation of the policy.
How was that new policy going on Monday morning?
“We’re providing with students, as many students as possible, with those clear backpacks. And we are piloting at a handful of schools as well, our security enhancement equipment,” House said. “So safety is a major part of what you want to see in public education. We’ve seen some, some unfortunate scenarios across the country, and we want to make sure that we stay ahead of the game, and we want to make certain that our kids are as safe as possible.”
Alsobrooks echoed her support for increased security at the schools during her visit on Monday.
“The safety of our children really is our No. 1 priority,” she said.
House was visiting three schools for the first day back. He spoke to reporters in the lot before his trip.
“I have a middle schooler who’s looking forward to getting on one of these buses with our very important employees that are looking forward to ensuring that our students get to school in a safe manner,” House said.
House added, “We know the pandemic has really pushed school districts across the country in a different direction, so we’re excited about moving into the direction that we know that our students should be on,” House said.
When asked about feedback he’s received from parents on what they’d like to see this school year, House said, “parents want an opportunity to have the kind of normalcy that they saw three years ago.”
In terms of bus drivers, House said that there are still some open routes without drivers, and they are continuing to search for more drivers to hire.
Martin Diggs, president of ACE-AFSCME Local 2250, the educational union that also represents bus drivers, said on Monday morning they’re still working out the kinks in the routes but that he’s optimistic that things are going to work out.
“It’s chaotic at times,” Diggs said. “We got a few open runs, but they’re feeling good.”
He said that he was pleasantly surprised to see House at the bus lot on Monday morning.
“I’m glad to see Mr. House here, because in the past, the CEOs have never come to the bus lots and actually rode a bus,” Diggs said. “So this right here is a very good positive thing that we’re gonna say, ‘hey, learn from it, experience it,’ and actually make some changes from the fact of being involved in the situation. The school day starts here.”
House also addressed the cyber ransomware attack from earlier this month, and the steps being taken since it happened.
“It’s caused some setback, but we are really moving forward in a manner that regardless of the disturbances that we might have from wrongdoers, we’re gonna move forward and have a positive first day, positive week, positive first month to ensure that our kids again, get what they need,” House said.
House, who is helming more than 200 schools amid a developing ransomware attack response and a new plan to combat address absenteeism, said he’s focused on providing a 90-day plan geared toward providing students and families with the necessary support to get through the school year.
Students in Prince George’s County public schools are back in action this week, welcoming more than 130,000 students back with a slew of changes — and some entirely new school buildings.
Students in the county will be welcomed into six new schools built as part of the Alternative Construction Finance program, a public partnership to help build new schools quickly in the county.
Those schools include “four building replacements — Drew-Freeman Middle School in Suitland; Hyattsville Middle School; Kenmoor Middle School in Landover; and Walker Mill Middle School in Capitol Heights — and two new schools, Sonia Sotomayor Middle School at Adelphi and Colin L. Powell Academy in Fort Washington.”
Staff, students and family members across the district are also fighting a concerning uptick of crime and violence among younger community members.
During the annual “Our Streets, Our Future” back-to-school bash, officials highlighted education resources, mental health options and even some job service providers with the goal of helping local communities.
“We send a strong message against gun violence, but we also give people hope and opportunity,” state’s attorney Aisha Braveboy said.
She added that this event is among many offering a “holistic way to address the issue of crime in our community.”
Students with lunch bags, pouches, wallets, handbags or colored transparent backpacks are able to wear them to school. The system said that students not in compliance with the policy will be able to stay in school.
“Students who are unable to obtain a clear backpack will not be excluded from school. PGCPS will work to support students and families in need,” the system said.
Screening devices will also be used in all high schools this year. Those attending Accokeek Academy, Charles Carroll, Drew-Freeman, James Gholson, Nicholas Orem, Sonia Sotomayor, Thurgood Marshall, William Wirt and Non-Traditional Middle Schools will also have screening devices this year. Prince George’s County Public Schools expect the screening devices to be in high schools by January 2024 and in middle schools by the end of second semester.
Also being piloted at PGCPS: the use of “next emerging” artificial intelligence technology.
Millard House II told Good Morning America that a three-year partnership with aiEDU, a nonprofit that aims to create equitable experiences with artificial intelligence, offered the system access to new technology that they would be taking advantage of.
“This allows them to create a community of practice for our teachers and really incubate AI lessons and teaching practices to build long term capacity in our district,” House said.
More information on the return to school is available in the PGCPS back-to-school guide.
WTOP’s Neal Augenstein was at Clarksburg High School on Monday morning while the marching band, cheer, pom and dance squads and a DJ helped welcome students for their first day as they walked through the front door.
Augenstein interviewed Montgomery County Superintendent Monifa McKnight on the first day school on Monday.
One of the highlights of the morning for McKnight was the opening of the new school Cabin Branch Elementary School in Clarksburg, making it 211 schools in the MCPS system.
“We’re excited that students get to come back to us. We get an opportunity to try to work with them and fulfill every optimistic dream that they have that they want to accomplish,” she said.
McKnight said one of the main initiatives this year that she’d like to focus on is attendance. The is attempting to fight a trend of chronic absenteeism after students — especially those in high school — missed days of instruction in previous years.
“Our attendance action plan is definitely one of our top priorities since the pandemic. We’ve learned that our students just got into a routine of not coming to school,” McKnight said.
When looking at the issue of attendance, she said some students not going to classes have told school officials that they got comfortable learning from home and that it was difficult to go back.
“The attendance action plan focuses on identifying those students who could possibly be those who struggle with absenteeism, and, once we identify them, the next step is really working closely with their families and our partners to determine what’s the issue,” she said.
McKnight said it’s important for students to be in the classroom.
“The biggest piece that you miss is the engagement,” McKnight said. “If we didn’t learn anything else from the pandemic, it is that teaching and learning is an in-person experience,” she said.
Maryland’s largest school district returns to school Monday after a summer spent trying to fill positions across the county system. However, with days until the school system opens, McKnight announced that schools were nearly fully staffed and that bus drivers were hired for the year.
“Not only are we fully staffed — we have a bench of drivers who are ready to get in and step in,” McKnight said of the transportation staffing.
After a post-pandemic shortage and return to fully in-person instruction, spokesman Chris Cram told WTOP’s Kate Ryan that the school year will start with more than 1,000 substitutes “ready to serve.” The school system currently has 148 teacher vacancies, 68 of which are special education positions.
Some students will also get access to no-cost breakfast and lunch options this year, if they’re in attendance at one of 58 schools operating under the Community Eligibility Provision. Outside of those schools, families eligible for free and reduced-price meals who fill out an application can qualify for the program.
With all these changes and challenges, some students — especially local high school freshmen — may feel a bit of back-to-school anxiety.
Sami Saeed, the Montgomery County board of education’s student member, said he understands the anxiety those freshmen may feel. Thankfully, he said, the biggest challenges are in the past, not the future.
“Middle school — and the drama that’s in middle school — is a hundred … a thousand times worse than in high school. All the things that seemed so huge in middle school,” Saeed said, “In high school, no one cares anymore.”
In those first few days of high school, he’s encouraging students around the county to lock in and make plans to tackle the academic and social challenges.
“If you ever feel hopeless, if you ever feel like it’s too much to bear, there’s always people to go to,” Saeed said.
Students in the system can also expect to continue engaging with diverse content — specifically LGBTQ+ books — for the foreseeable future after a U.S. District Court judge ruled against families seeking to opt kids out of some storybooks and readings.
Judge Deborah Boardman wrote in her ruling that, despite the ongoing legal challenge to the county’s opt-out policies, an injunction would not be necessary.
While parents plan to appeal the ruling and advocates deem the court’s decision “an assault on children’s right to be guided by their parents,” MCPS said it remains committed to creating diverse, inclusive and welcoming environments while providing “instructional materials that reflect the diversity of the local and global community.”
A final ruling has yet to be issued by the court.
For more information on the return to school, families can visit Montgomery County Public Schools online or check the county’s Back-To-School email updates.
Arlington County, Virginia
Returning Superintendent Francisco Durán is welcoming students across middle and high schools with a change to grading policies while providing parents access to reports on how students use school-issued tech. But that isn’t the only change students have to look forward to as schools return Monday.
Arlington County Police spokesperson Alli Shorb said the department will be looking to ensure that students get to and from local schools safely.
“Arlington County police officers will be participating in a high visibility transportation safety campaign where members from our special operations section, patrol division … will be present for arrival and dismissal times at elementary and middle schools across the county during the first week of school,” Shorb said.
Officers said Arlington drivers should ensure they are driving slowly, especially in school zones, and avoiding distractions.
“We ask drivers to stay focused on the road at all times and remain alert for pedestrians in the area, especially in those early morning and late afternoon hours during arrival and dismissal times,” Shorb told WTOP.
Superintendent Durán encouraged students and families heading to their first day to remain aware of students walking to school. He also said families should avoid an unnecessary drive if their student is able to take the bus.
“Bus-eligible students should ride the bus instead of being dropped of at school to help decrease traffic surrounding schools,” Durán said Wednesday.
The more than 20,000 students in Arlington County will also see quite a few new faces in local schools as the system, which, according to numbers Durán presented to the school board in early August, was just under 98% staffed for the coming school year.
“I’m encouraged with the progress that we are in a better place at this point than we had been in previous years, particularly given the situation nationally and even in our region with regards to very, very high vacancies for school systems around the country,” he told the board.
Some of the school system’s changes are intended to save lives — students can carry lifesaving naloxone in schools to prevent overdoses — while others are likely to garner national attention.
Arlington is among the school districts that have yet to implement policies in alignment with the state’s finalized model policies ahead of the school year, in part because, as the ACLU of Virginia’s senior transgender rights attorney Wyatt Rolla told WTOP, the new policy appears to have no enforcement mechanism.
“When school districts fail to adopt the model policies, it’s not clear what, if any, consequences there are for those districts,” Rolla said.
Attorney General Jason Miyares, who released nonbinding legal guidance in relation to the model policies Thursday, called for compliance with the policies which are “fully compliant with the law.” That same day, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita told WTOP that school boards are “now on notice of their legal obligation to adopt policies consistent with the model policies.”
“If a school board voted not to adopt policies consistent with the model policies, parents can sue under current state law. Our office will be monitoring all litigation and will be prepared to participate where doing so is appropriate and parents have valid claims,” LaCivita said.
As of Sunday, Arlington County schools have not passed any apparent model policy-compliant regulations.
For a full list of important dates, resources and events, see the system’s back-to-school guide.
WTOP’s Luke Lukert was in D.C. for the first day back to school for local students.
“We’re excited, I think a little nervous like the students,” said Jasmine Stewart, manager of Connected Schools at DCPS. “I barely slept last night, but overall, we’re excited to welcome our students back for the school year.”
Stewart says there are 14 “Connected Schools” in the DCPS system, with three being added next year.
“What we do is we provide a whole whole community approach support to our students, as well as our families. We definitely understand that when our students and our families are fully supported that our students can thrive,” she said.
The District’s more than 50,000 students will be back in school on Monday with a revamped addition to their back-to-school checklist: required immunizations.
Last week, ahead of the new school year, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee encouraged families to “put wellness visits and immunizations” on their to-do lists, as a new portal to track immunization records is launched for the city.
“As we prepare for the opening of schools, and families are preparing at home, we know that you have your checklist. And so we’re reminding you to ensure that your child’s wellness visit, the vaccinations that have been described today, are a part of that checklist — to ensure that DCPS and all our public schools can start the school year strong,” Ferebee said during a news conference.
For the roughly 3,800 students and families with “remember your bus number” on their back-to-school checklist ahead of the start of school, some changes are on the way.
After a strike by city bus drivers and attendants — unionized under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1959 — outside the Office of the State Superintendent on Friday, officials have reportedly pledged to make several changes.
WTOP’s news partners at 7News report that drivers and attendants, some of whom drive special needs students with routes reaching into Baltimore, aren’t the only ones being impacted by “issues of health and safety.”
“Our buses are dirty. There have been buses that have been infected with bedbugs, ants, spiders, all sorts of things. Sometimes, raccoons even be on the bus. You’ll have raccoon feces on the bus that you’re left to clean up,” longtime bus driver Tenish Mitchell told 7News.
While other drivers reported weapons on buses and concerns about the safety of students as well as employees, the OSSE said that it’s confident that it can deliver safe, timely transportation for students and families on local buses.
“We work continuously in collaboration with union representatives to ensure the needs of our drivers and attendants are met and that their recommendations and concerns are heard and addressed,” the OSSE wrote in a statement to 7News.
Thousands of students heading back to class Monday will also get to see the brand new MacArthur High School in Northwest. WTOP’s John Domen was outside the school Saturday with the school’s principal Harold McCray.
“It’s a long time coming, but I’m definitely excited to lay this groundwork, to be able to open up a new school has been a phenomenal experience,” McCray said.
The school is expected to offer career and technical courses alongside college level instruction through advanced placement and honors curricula.
“Critical thinking, analyzing and writing is going to be our focus, and we want to make sure that we are developing global leaders,” McCray said.
Read D.C.’s back-to-school guide for the latest system information.
Anne Arundel County
Anne Arundel County public school students will be back in class before Labor Day this year — a change from previous years.
Roughly eight years after an executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan requiring public school start after Labor Day took effect, the system is bringing students back to class early. Officials said the change in start date was part of an effort to avoid students “checking out” before the school year’s end.
The new calendar includes a three-day Thanksgiving break, a week for Easter, closings on other federal and religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and 12 half days. Several members reportedly voted against the measure, highlighting that South County families prefer to start school after Labor Day.
Across the system, families can also expect new information about bus delays and route cancellations through a new app.
The new notification system, announced by Superintendent Mark Bedell in a news release Friday, will provide families with email and text notifications in English or Spanish for their selected bus number and school.
“This new system is a win not just for our families, but for our larger community. Last year, notifications were sent only to families of students in our schools but this platform allows people such as day care providers to be apprised of interruptions to bus schedules that will impact their lives as well,” Bedell said.
Bedell said messages are sent to users on the night before school starts at 7:30 p.m. regarding cancellations and delays for the following school day. Messages from the notification system will also be sent periodically beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 8:45 a.m. as needed by bus contractors. By 12:30 p.m., families should receive information on afternoon impacts if any arise.
“We are in a far better position at the start of this school year than we were a year ago but there are, unfortunately, still going to be interruptions. We will do everything we can to minimize those and to inform families and the community when they occur, but we will all need to exercise patience throughout the year,” the superintendent concluded.
Families looking for more information on Anne Arundel County’s return to school can visit the AACPS Back-To-School webpage for the latest.
Families in Charles County, Maryland, are returning to school with fewer transportation worries and more events Monday.
With a week left until schools open for students, school bus drivers reached a short-term agreement with Charles County Public Schools, increasing driver pay and offering more time to negotiate a contract.
For the more than 23,000 students attending schools across the county, this means bus drivers will be on the road for the start of the school year, avoiding strikes and sickouts like those that hampered hundreds of routes in October of 2021. Meanwhile, bus drivers lock in eight hours of pay if they work four or more hours on any day.
The county is also expected to have AI gun detection more fully incorporated into its schools this fall.
Using what the school system calls “visual gun detection technology,” students entering local schools will see Advanced AI systems which, if triggered, detect weapons before sending alerts through phone, email and text to school safety officials.
“Through system alerts, we will be able to notify police more quickly of a possible safety concern and place a school or campus in an emergency code faster. The technology provides advance warning before a situation occurs,” Director of School Safety and Security Jason Stoddard said.
Information on the county’s return to class can be found on the Charles County Public School back-to-school webpage.
WTOP’s David Andrews, Kate Corliss, John Domen, Scott Gelman, Matt Kaufax, Jack Moore, Thomas Robertson, Kate Ryan, Emily Venezky and Ciara Wells contributed to this report.
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