Students return to changes in Va.’s largest school systems

As students return to class in some of Virginia’s largest school systems, they’re finding some changes compared to last year.

Students in Fairfax County, City of Fairfax, Prince William County, Manassas Park City and the City of Alexandria returned to the classroom Monday. In total, almost 289,000 students went back to classes.

Fairfax County

In Fairfax County, more than 178,000 students in 198 schools and centers started classes on Monday.

Lake Braddock Secondary School is off to an early start.

Superintendent Michelle Reid is entering her first year overseeing Fairfax County Public Schools — Virginia’s largest school system. Reid succeeds Scott Brabrand, who is now serving as executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

“We’re thrilled to have an educator in every classroom, as we start the year this morning,” Reid told WTOP’s Anna-Lysa Gayle.

This year, Fairfax County students will be tasked with adhering to the county’s new cellphone policy, which prohibits most students from using their mobile device during all classes, as well as visits to the bathrooms and locker rooms. The school board voted to approve the new rules in June.

Maya Pedan, a student at Kilmer Middle School, said it’s hard at first not to take your phone out, but it gets easier later in the year.

Middle schools in Fairfax County will also feature recess periods this school year.

“For two years, students had the opportunity to really set their own boundaries of when they kind of took a break or when they were engaged in their learning, and coming back and being in person for eight straight hours is a lot for students,” said Lindsay Kearns, the principal at Lake Braddock Secondary School. “That 15-minute break gives them time to put their devices away. Just reengage their brain in a different capacity to be outside, which we all know can be an important part of just overall well being.”

Abhirama Chillara, a student at Kilmer Middle School, said that recess would be an opportunity to chat with people and chill out.

“And also, you can also do your homework or go to lunch. Or during recess, I usually just talk to friends or sometimes if I need to, I go to the restroom, or sometimes I go to library,” Chillarama said.

Kilmer Middle School Principal Amy Miller said recess is a great time for students to have the opportunity to get outside and play or do some other choice activities.

“So every student has the option to go outside. But we also have classrooms who run board games, or we have a classroom sometimes does lip synching, and just fun activities,” Miller said.

During an information session with parents last week, Reid said the school system is about 99% staffed.

“We’re looking forward to a great new year and the opportunity to continue to support a premier division education for each and every student,” she told WTOP on Friday.

Prince William County

In nearby Prince William County, more than 89,000 students are headed back to school. About 2,400 of them are headed to Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, as there is a feeling of a return to normalcy. Masks are optional.

Gar-Field High School cheerleaders and the marching band celebrate the first day of school. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Principal Matt Mathison said being able to engage with their teachers and friends makes a huge difference for students.

“We know that a huge part of communication is nonverbal, and being able to connect and see each other’s faces and read those nonverbal cues is really important to building relationships,” Mathison said.

Superintendent LaTanya McDade said in a letter to families on Friday that the county has 168 openings, which is comparable to the number of openings it had before the 2021-22 school year.

PWCS is starting a four-year strategic plan focusing on the rigor and relevance of the content, supporting teachers in strengthening knowledge and skill, and ensuring that there is student engagement where students are owning their learning in the classroom.

“We have a lot of new initiatives within our strategic plan. We’ll be advancing access to gifted programming and advanced coursework at the high school level,” McDade said. She described the changes as part of an “all-out effort to make sure that each student’s individual needs are being met, and that schools have the resources that they need to do that as well.”

McDade is starting her second school year as superintendent of the state’s second-largest school system. She received her contract extension in July.

Even before the year started, Alexandria school officials had detailed security enhancements for the system. All students in middle and high schools will be required to carry student IDs, and schools will now have designated entrances for students, staff and visitors to better regulate who comes and goes.

The school resource officer program, which was reestablished after pressure from parents, will place officers at four schools in Alexandria this academic year.

What’s new in D.C.-area school systems

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein reported from Gar-Field High School; Anna-Lysa Gayle reported from Lake Braddock Secondary School, and Nick Iannelli contributed to this report.

Tadiwos Abedje

Tadi Abedje is a freelance digital writer/editor for WTOP. He was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Northern Virginia. Journalism has been his No. 1 passion since he was a kid and he is blessed to be around people, telling their stories and sharing them with the world.

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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