Back to School: Schools in Montgomery, Prince George, DC start today

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Across the Washington region, more students returned to classrooms as Maryland’s two largest districts and DC public schools began classes today.

Arlington Public Schools also started their school year today; most Northern Virginia school systems started last week.

The line outside the school inside the school in Goding, northeast Washington, wrapped around the block as parents waited with students to enter their newly modernized building early Monday. Inside, colorful reading nooks, a two-story glass-walled bookcase, and rows of rainbow crayons awaited them.

Primary school administrators scrambled between families, gathering evidence of negative coronavirus tests. DC Public Schools has maintained its “return test” policy that was enacted last year, which requires negative proof before students and staff can return.

Cenequa Brown, 32, pulled out a photo of her son’s negative test on her phone. Sunah, 7, is entering second grade after a summer of playing video games, he said.

“I think it was important to do that,” Brown said of the school district’s policy, “to make sure all kids are negative and safe.”

Hannah Choi, 39, dropped off her sons, Everett, 8, and Easton, 6. The government worker said the testing policy – along with the building’s re-excavation – made her feel better about leaving them for the day.

“We’re really excited,” Choi said. “We are really lucky to be able to have this experience, to have our children in a school that is new.”

The $51.7 million upgrade began before the pandemic and was completed this summer.

In addition to welcoming and testing students for covid-19, school officials are also working to address remaining teacher shortages, ensuring students have completed their vaccinations and monitoring near community levels of covid-19 cases.

Parents and teachers cautiously optimistic for the new school year

Montgomery County Public Schools reported 169 teachers, 29 part-time teachers, 448 support staff and 32 bus driver openings Friday. Public schools in Prince George’s County have about 900 teaching vacancies and still needed about 165 bus drivers on Friday. The school district has told families who rely on the bus to expect delays for the first few weeks as drivers get used to the new routes. Many of the teaching vacancies are in special education, which districts across the country have struggled to staff for years — even before the pandemic. Montgomery County reached an incentive agreement with its teachers’ union just before school started to improve special education classroom staffing.

DC Public Schools reported about 150 teaching vacancies. School district leaders brought in central services staff to fill classes during the month of September. Contracts for substitute teachers have also been expanded, officials said.

Many educators have left the profession in the past school year due to complaints about burnout, low pay and unsupportive environments, especially after the pandemic disrupted in-person learning. The Washington teachers’ union has gone three years without a contract with the public school system, much to the chagrin of its members.

Despite these challenges, parents hope another year of in-person learning will continue to help students recover academically. Lei Zong, a parent of a third and fifth grader at Prince George Schools, said she was looking forward to “getting back to ‘normal’ – whatever normal is”. Friday was the first time she could enter a school building since the pandemic began for a back-to-school event at her children’s school, Robert Goddard Montessori in Seabrook, Maryland.

“I’m glad the county brought back the mask mandate, at least at the start of the school year just to keep the numbers down,” Zong, 44, said. Prince George’s reinstated its universal mask mandate in August, although CEO Monica Goldson indicated the requirement could ease “in the coming weeks” as covid positivity rates decline.

In addition to its test-on-return policy, the district, requires students over the age of 12 to be vaccinated against the coronavirus – a requirement that makes it an anomaly not only among schools in the region, but in the country.

The measure, the result of legislation passed by the DC Council last year, has been criticized for its potential to keep students out of school. City education officials recently decided to give students more time to comply – children who are not fully vaccinated against the virus will be notified on November 21 and must be vaccinated by January 3 .

Beyond those requirements, most area schools have relaxed many of the coronavirus protocols that were in place. Mask mandates have been dropped – except in Prince George schools – and policies that required students and staff to self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus have been eliminated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose recommendations follow many school systems, relaxed its covid guidelines for schools earlier this month.

CDC facilitates school counseling on quarantines, testing and screening

Outside of the coronavirus and staffing issues, district officials expect enrollment to increase after being hit in the first year of the pandemic. Those numbers, however, will likely continue to fluctuate ahead of the official count day on October 5.

“We can only speculate,” Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, said in an interview Thursday. “In the early years, people kept their kids at home and didn’t send them to our pre-K programs, for example.”

He also suspects high school students opted out of virtual learning. “So we think there’s a large number of returning students here,” Kihn added.

Officials also expect about 40 migrant children who arrived in the district by bus from the southern border to enroll this fall. More than 7,000 migrants have arrived in the city since April — a situation that was created by Republican governors in Texas and Arizona who are offering the rides to criticize the Biden administration’s border policies.

Many young migrants live in temporary shelters and hotels. They will come to classrooms with huge needs – from mental health care to Spanish-language services, according to volunteer groups who have helped new families.

“We’re going to be getting school-age kids into the district, and we’ll be ready for everyone,” DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in an interview. “We have put in place arrangements to welcome them on Mondays and support them in their registration.

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