Students in Fairfax and Prince William counties start new, very different year

A marching band greets students at Prince William County’s Freedom High School on the morning of Aug. 23, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Cheerleaders outside Prince William County’s Freedom High School on the morning of Aug. 23, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Students gather for their first day at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. (WTOP/John Domen)
Students gather for their first day at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. (WTOP/John Domen)

Nearly 300,000 students returned to the classroom Monday as four school systems in Virginia reopened, including two of the state’s largest districts. But students will face a very different environment as they navigate in-person learning under a pandemic.

Fairfax County, one of the largest school districts in the country, with nearly 190,000 students, reopened along with Prince William County (roughly 90,000 students), Manassas Park City Schools (3,700) and Culpeper County (8,200).

All Virginia school districts are requiring students and teachers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status (with exceptions for eating and drinking and outdoor activities). Gov. Ralph Northam issued the universal mask mandate for all K-12 schools in the state after a handful of districts, including Fauquier, bucked the recommendations of the governor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks in light of the fast-spreading delta variant.

The state, however, is not requiring that teachers or students be vaccinated against COVID-19, and that prompted the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers to issue a statement urging the school system to require staff to provide proof of vaccine or undergo weekly COVID testing.

A day after the federation released its statement, Fairfax County Public Schools said that it will require vaccinations or routine testing for employees by late October.

Such requirements are already in effect for public schools in Arlington, along with D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland.

Fairfax County Public Schools will experience another major change: This will be the last school year for the system’s superintendent, Scott Brabrand, who is leaving when his contract expires in 2022 after nearly 30 years of working for FCPS.

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“It feels to me the right time to move on after this year of getting everybody back in-person and having an almost normal school year,” Brabrand told WTOP on July 17.

He added that, while the pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging, “I really think we have come together — there have been some differences along the way, but it was all about trying to do what was best for kids — and I’m really, really excited about this coming year.”

Diana Gulotta, director of communications services for Prince William County Public Schools, said she is also “excited about welcoming our almost 90,000 students back to five days a week of in-person learning.”

“I have butterflies in my stomach. I am so excited about seeing the students returned to the buildings. We have a brand new superintendent. We’re really excited about her and she’s very excited to see our students in person in the buildings, Gulotta told WTOP, referring to LaTanya McDade, who began her new role on July 1. “So we are just really thrilled to start the school year and have a successful start.”

Here’s what to expect on the first day of school at the state’s two largest school districts:

Fairfax County Public Schools

FCPS prepared for 99.5% of its students to return to in-person learning. Given the large amount of students returning, the system said physical distancing indoors may not always be possible, which is why it stresses the importance of masks.

“For over 18 months, we’ve been looking forward to getting our students back into the building safely so that they can focus on their social emotional well-being and their academic success,” said JoVon Rogers, Mount Vernon High School principal. “The Delta variant did take us a little bit by surprise, we thought we were coming back to a more normal school year, but we know how to do this now.”

Just getting to school, though, may be more of a challenge than usual. FCPS, like many other districts, is experiencing a shortage of school bus drivers. On its Facebook page, FCPS told parents there my delays on bus routes. It advises that if possible, parents should walk or drive their child to school while it continues its efforts to recruit drivers.

Like other school districts, FCPS is recommending that students, parents and teachers screen themselves every day for any signs of illness — and stay home if they feel sick. The system is also in the process of partnering with a third-party provider to offer screening tests, although no details have been released yet.

The school district is not requiring masks outdoors and will try to use outdoor eating and teaching areas when possible. While masks aren’t required, the district is recommending that unvaccinated students consider wearing a mask if they’re in a crowded outdoor setting or in sustained close contact with other unvaccinated people.

The issue of when to mask up during close-contact sports and other outdoor activities has been a contentious one across the country. But FCPS is offering athletes a unique alternative in the form of an “esports” program it plans to launch later this year. The program will connect students in high schools via a popular, soccer-like game called Rocket League, in which players drive futuristic cars, according to the Tysons Reporter.

Prince William County Public Schools

On its website, PWCS said schools returned to a “new normal” as nearly 97% of students went back to in-person learning.

All students will be provided a laptop, along with free at-home internet for those who need it.

Gulotta said that while technology continues to be a vital tool, “it doesn’t replace the teacher in the classroom.”

“But it can be a really engaging tool, especially for our younger students who really, when they were born, or very close to after their birth, they had some type of technology that they were using. So we will continue to use it as a tool.”

Gulotta added that technology is also valuable to busy parents.

“Because we were able to provide everyone with a laptop, you’re able to have those virtual meetings more conveniently for parents … because sometimes it’s just really hard for a parent to leave work,” Gulotta said, noting that schools will continue to offer virtual meetings as an additional way “to engage with our parents.”

Inside the classroom, Gulotta said schools will use various mitigation strategies — in addition to universal masking — to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Obviously we can’t social distance six feet apart at all times just because of the numbers in our building, but we are still going to social distance to the greatest extent possible. Of course we will continue to promote frequent hand-washing. We have hand sanitizer stations throughout the buildings,” Gulotta said.

Superintendent Dr. LaTanya McDade said differences in population and facilities between schools means there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and that some areas like cafeterias will use assigned seating or pods to facilitate contact tracing.

While Prince William County is not mandating vaccines for teachers, “we have a majority of our staff already vaccinated. And the reason we know that is we worked with our school nurses and our local hospitals to put together some vaccination clinics back in the spring,” Gulotta said, adding that, “we will continue to encourage vaccination, but we are not mandating it at the time.”

“We learned a lot from last year just in terms of keeping students safe. So we’ll continue some of those same strategies,” she told WTOP. “But the important thing is the safety of our students and staff is our top priority, and so we’ll continue to listen to the science and continue to use the layered mitigation procedures to try to stop or prevent the spread of COVID in our schools.”

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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