Virginia public school district superintendents, their students, staff and families just completed a school year unlike any other. Ongoing collaboration with federal, state and local officials helped us navigate a global health crisis, an economic crisis and a social justice crisis — each significantly impacting our communities. Centering our work around equity, recognizing strength in our diversity and creating a culture of inclusion are critical principles to ensuring that our communities rebound and are ready to thrive as we return to school in the fall.
Virginia school leaders need to adopt these principles as they face five key challenges to the coming school year.
First, we must safely reopen all of our school districts for five days of in-person instruction. We finished this school year with every Virginia school district offering some form of in-person learning, but our goal needs to be to return to our pre-COVID-19 practices as much as possible this fall.
Continuing to use safety protocols to keep COVID-19 transmission low in our community and our schools will be important. We also will need to continue partnering with the Virginia Department of Health to ensure that our students and their families get access to the COVID-19 vaccine. This especially is true for our younger students, as vaccines become available for children under age 12, which we expect will happen by the end of this year. Fairfax County Public Schools joined our local leaders this spring to host vaccine clinics in 56 of our middle and high schools. We had great success, with 4,591 students participating.
Second, we must assess and address the social and emotional health of every child. While many of our children have struggled this past year, we are humbled by their incredible resilience. Still, we know that our schools and classrooms must provide a safe space for them to unpack their experiences of the past year, even as they seek a return to normal routines and structures. Mental health awareness training will be essential in preparing our school staff to support students during this transition time. We must give them, as Dr. Marc Brackett of Yale University says, “permission to feel.”
Third, we also must address unfinished learning for students who need it. Opportunities for small group learning and individualized tutoring for our students, including mentoring programs during and after school, will be crucial. With plentiful assessments of academic progress, our teachers and staff can better tailor instruction. Differentiated and personalized instruction also will help us to meet students where they are postpandemic.
A further shift to growth measures in testing is essential and, beginning this year, the Virginia Department of Education will administer a fall assessment along with the spring Standards of Learning assessment in grades three-to-eight reading and mathematics to measure growth. This is a needed step in the right direction for our students and schools.
In Fairfax County, we also have modified our homework and grading policies based on feedback from our students and families. Elevating student voice, truly listening to what our students need to be successful, is crucial as students return this fall.
Fourth, school superintendents must develop robust budget plans using the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. This is a true opportunity to begin to rebuild even better school systems based on the lessons learned from the past year. We need to support changing the ARP deadline from 2024 to 2026, which is the case for local government. Doing so would give innovative programs, which desperately are needed to address the impact of COVID-19, a chance to gain footing before the funding ends.
Legislators also must commit to providing more state funds to elevate our Virginia teachers’ pay to well above the national average. I am confident they will continue to make Virginia public education a top priority.
Fifth and finally, Virginia superintendents must help model the process this school year of rediscovering the ways we find joy in every school day. Our students, staff and families have lived through this pandemic with events and information that have weighed heavily on their souls — and we, as superintendents, feel that weight. We know that schools are the cornerstones of our communities and more than just a place of learning. Our schools are a gathering place, where students, staff and families build relationships and grow together — as one community.
We must champion each child’s strengths and support their challenges as we move forward together in 2021-22. We also must celebrate the joy of seeing students learn, watching teachers teach and partnering with parents toward the collective success of every child.
Virginia is for Lovers! Virginia’s school leaders are ready to embrace the love and joy of fully reuniting with our students and families. Working together with our communities, Virginia’s superintendents can and will meet these five challenges this coming school year.
Scott S. Brabrand, Ed.D., is superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools and president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. Contact him at: Superintendent@fcps.edu