Emotions were mixed Monday morning at Freedom High School in Woodbridge, but at least one was repeated by administrators, parents and students: relief that kids could be back in school in person, five days a week.
Of course, things are not back to normal at Freedom or any of Prince William’s other 15 high schools that welcomed back students – some who hadn’t been inside the building in more than a year. For now, students will have to wear masks inside the building when they’re not eating. Schools are also implementing mitigation strategies to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 in the cafeteria when students take off their masks off to eat.
But other than that, things looked fairly normal Monday morning. Students filtered in before the first bell, greeted by eager teachers at the front doors. Friends embraced and laughed, staff directed traffic and rushed students in so that they wouldn’t be late.
Daniel Martinez, a senior at Freedom and member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, told InsideNoVa that even when Prince William high schools moved to a virtual and in-person hybrid system last semester, he remained fully virtual.
Asked what emotions he was feeling heading back into school for the first time in well over a year, he said it was “just exciting and nervous due to the coronavirus, and also exciting to come back after such a long time. … I was missing school and it was a lot of distractions at home, so I’m just glad to be back and see how [my friends] are doing and everything. Hope to see them and hope everything is good.”
Asked whether he thought his classmates would do a good job of keeping their masks on and following the rules around mitigation, Martinez said he hoped so. “I don’t want to get sick and I don’t think anybody else does.”
Heidi, the mother of a ninth-grader who gave only her first name, said she was nervous about COVID, but hoped that all the adults around her son were vaccinated. Monday was his first day in a Prince William school because the family recently moved from El Salvador.
“It is going to be a new challenge for everyone. Really, we assume that everyone is vaccinated and we hope that they are distanced,” she said in Spanish.
But she also said that she was excited for her son to start school in the United States. She said she knew how important it was for him to be with his classmates in person.
“I like that he is here because it’s his first time and he has to socialize with other kids to learn English.”
Another parent being hurried through the drop-off circle in a car told InsideNoVa she was glad to have her 12th grade daughter back in school five days a week. Their whole family is vaccinated, and the mother said she was happy that her daughter would get a full senior year bearing some semblance of normalcy.
“She’ll probably be telling any of her classmates to go get the vaccine if they haven’t already,” the mother said. “I just want her to get to do all of the typical senior stuff.”
The school division still has more vacant positions than at the start of a typical school year. According to the division’s job board, Freedom itself is still looking to fill two teacher positions for students with learning disabilities, and the division’s top human resources administrator told InsideNoVa last week that the system needs about 100 more bus drivers.
But by the time the first bell rang Monday at 7:25 a.m. and a voice came over the public address system welcoming everyone to the first day of school, no major transportation issues had arisen.
“It normally takes a week or so to get everything going smoothly just with pick-up times and for drivers and the attendants to learn the kids and get them loaded, but, no, everything’s going very well,” said Assistant Principal Robert Schraml.
New Prince William Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade was also at Freedom High on Monday morning, greeting parents, students and staff and speaking with the assembled media.
She said the division was following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health to make the reopening of schools as safe as possible while keeping students in the classroom.
She also responded to questions about a petition circulating among parents asking to be able to change to the county’s virtual schooling option while cases increase and the contagious Delta variant spreads. The division has declined to allow families to make that change, saying that 97% of students are planning to be back in school in-person and that it needed to know in advance in order to adequately prepare for in-person and virtual instruction.
“All of our health experts have stated that … in-person learning not only is optimal but it is safe,” McDade said. “We will be paying close attention to the CDC guidelines and if there’s a need for us to make any shifts we will do so. … But we have to make sure that every learning experience is a quality experience, so we had to plan, we had to staff and budget for that.”
McDade spoke passionately about children being back in the classroom in person, acknowledging that there is more ground to cover for educators and students after a challenging year that likely resulted in significant learning loss (state Standards of Learning test results from the 2020-2021 school year should be released before the end of the month).
“In-person learning is the optimal learning model and you’ll hear that not just from educators, you’ll also hear that from health experts as well. … We need to make sure that our students are in school,” she told InsideNoVa. “We’re really going to be focused on recovery. All of the research that is currently available … highlights what the impact [of the last school year] is going to be. We’re going to see an impact on learning for multiple years out, so now is the time for us to really double-down on core instruction, focus on recovery, and accelerating learning to address some of the unfinished learning that has occurred.”