WASHINGTON — It’s the end of summer for nearly 200,000 school children in Northern Virginia as Fairfax County Public Schools — Virginia’s largest school district — heads back into session.
From more time on the playground for elementary students to enhanced security upgrades and a new role for student resource officers, here are a few of the changes students and parents can expect this school year.
With a $2.9 billion budget and 198 schools, the Fairfax County school system is the 10th largest in the country. And the student body is still growing. Budget projections call for a about 1,100 new students this year.
“We’re continuing to see growth in Fairfax County Public School,” said Scott Brabrand, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, in an interview with WTOP. Overall, the student body is expected to tick up to more than 190,000 students.
“So, we’re a very large school system that continues to grow at a steady clip, and we’re very excited about having kids come back,” Brabrand said.
The school has long-term plans to build a new high school in the Northwest part of the county to help handle growing enrollment, but no new schools are opening their doors this year.
$4M for security upgrades
Last month, the Fairfax County School Board approved nearly $4 million in new spending to upgrade security measures across the school system. The new funding includes enhanced training and mental health support teams.
The district aims to hold detailed “tabletop” security training at least once a year, Brabrand said. “That really lets our school administrators and teachers problem-solve about different issues that could come up security-wise,” he said.
Some of the new funding will also help upgrade classroom door locks so they can be more quickly secured in case there’s a lockdown.
In addition, the school system has beefed up staffing for what Brabrand called “social-emotional supports” in schools, particularly middle schools.
The district has added a total of 18 counselor or school psychologists to “help be that first responder as our young people have issues and struggles that they have a trusted adult that they can reach out to and get help when they need it,” he said.
Students can also expect some changes in the duties of school resource officers that are posted to schools across the county.
The district inked a new deal with the Fairfax County Police Department outlining the roles and responsibilities of SROs. Under the new memorandum of understanding, SROs will not play a role in student discipline or enforcing school rules. Those duties will fall to school officials.
The new agreement “really makes a clear distinction between the role of school officials and the role of the SRO so that we are not in any way encouraging a classroom-to-courtroom pipeline in our schools,” Brabrand said. SROs remain an important part of our overall plan. But we need to make sure that our school officials are focused on what school officials should be doing and our SROs are focused on what SROs should be doing.”
More time on the playground
Thanks to a campaign by Fairfax County parents — and some legislative assistance in the General Assembly — elementary school students will get some extra time on the playground during the school day.
Starting this year, elementary students will have a the opportunity for two recess breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of recess time each school day. That’s up from the previous minimum of 15 minutes. The change in policy required a change in Virginia law giving schools more flexibility over how they counted instructional time.
Local parents were instrumental in lobbying legislators to make the change.
“Many of our Fairfax County parents, frankly, led the statewide conversation around more recess for our students,” Brabrand said.
The school district said the expanded recess time supports student’s physical fitness and mental well-being.
“We want kids to enjoy school. We want them to have the opportunity to make healthy lifestyle choices and part of that is getting a chance to take a break,” Brabrand said.
Automatic free lunches at some elementary schools
Also new this year is a program providing automatic free lunches to all students at several elementary schools in the district.
Fairfax County Public Schools is taking part in a meal program offered by the U.S. Agriculture Department that will allow several elementary schools in the district to serve free lunch and breakfasts to all students without having to collect specific applications for free and reduced price lunches
Brabrand said the move cuts down on paperwork and also helps eliminate “social stigma” of children receiving free lunches.
The program is being rolled out to 19 elementary schools this year. They are: Annandale Terrace, Bailey’s Lower and Upper, Braddock, Crestwood, Dogwood, Garfield, Glen Forest, Graham Road, Groveton, Hutchison, Hybla Valley, Lynbrook, Mount Vernon Woods, Parklawn, Riverside, Weyanoke, Woodburn and Woodley Hills.