Five things we’re watching as kids return to school

By Lauren LumpkinKarina ElwoodDonna St. George and Nicole Asbury August 20, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT Washington Post

The autumnal return to school brings children and parents a mix of emotions: excitement, joy, anxiety, the bittersweet realization that kids are growing up.

But lurking in the background of all the first-day preparations — the new shoes and clothes, the rush to finish summer reading assignments, the acquisition of school supplies — are some major challenges facing American schools. These include the pandemic, poverty and violence.F

Here are five important topics The Washington Post’s education team will be watching as schools reopen.

Test scores

National test scores in reading and math plunged during the pandemic, most recently with record drops for 13-year-olds on the well-regarded National Assessment for Education Progress. The backsliding followed other stark results. Experts say that students as a whole have not made up for the ground they lost during covid-19.

Students’ understanding of history and civics is worsening

In the D.C. region, academic recovery has a long way to go. In the District’s public schools, for example, the passing rate in math on standardized tests taken in spring 2022 plummeted 12 percentage points, from 31 percent before the pandemic to 19 percent — the lowest ever recorded in the city, according to results released last year. The share of students reaching the reading benchmark dipped six percentage points, to 31 percent. Maryland state assessment scores released in January showed that students were reaching pre-pandemic levels in English, but falling behind in math. New scores will be released later this week.

School systems across the country have experimented with an array of strategies to help students catch up academically — including high-dosage tutoring — but researchers say many programs don’t last long enough or reach a sufficient number of students. Some areas have struggled to hire tutors.

While test scores are telltale, other academic measures are revealing, too. In fall of 2022, half of students across the country started the academic year below grade level in at least one subject, according to federal survey data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. This year may not be vastly different.

School security

School systems are rolling out additional security measures in response to youth violence.

Prince George’s County Public Schools is installing weapons detectors at every high school and some middle schools to reduce the amount of gun incidents reported on school campuses. The school system — which is Maryland’s second largest with about 131,000 students — is also requiring clear backpacks for every high-schooler.

In Northern Virginia, both Alexandria City Public Schools and Prince William County Public Schools will have weapons detectors in their middle and high schools. Alexandria began its pilot program in the spring, and Prince William will begin using the scanners for the first time in a phased rollout starting the third week of school.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare


While teacher resignations in some D.C. area districts fell last year compared to the term prior, the region’s seven major systems reported at least 2,300 vacancies just weeks before the start of the school year.

In Fairfax County, the largest public school system in Virginia, 726 teachers quit their jobs during the 2022-2023 school year — a decline from 896 in 2021-2022. Fewer teachers also left Arlington’s public schools, from 284 during the 2021-2022 school year to 164 last school year.

Meanwhile in Prince George’s County, officials counted 1,126 resignations between July 2022 and this July. Last year, they said 989 teachers quit between June 2021 and July 2022. The district has hosted hiring fairs in recent months to connect anxious school leaders with new teachers and staff.

D.C.’s public school system reported 360 resignations last school year — an average of roughly 37 resignations per month, district officials said. Between January and June 2022, 372 teachers quit their jobs, The Post previously reported, about 62 departures per month.

Coronavirus relief money

This is the last year for schools across the country to spend roughly $122 billion in pandemic relief aid, the final round of more than $190 billion in federal funds intended to help schools navigate the pandemic. Schools — in the D.C. area and beyond — have so far have reported using the cash to support efforts such as virtual learning, reopening schools and launching tutoring programs.

The money came with few guidelines, which allowed schools to spend it on almost anything related to education. But as the funding runs out, education advocates have warned of a fiscal cliff that could drop school systems into financial disarray as they try to readjust to their smaller, pre-pandemic budgets.

Most education agencies maintain online databases to track their spending. Here they are for D.C.Maryland and Virginia.

Schools brace for challenges as once-in-a-lifetime cash runs out


Two years after the pandemic, enrollment numbers in K-12 public schools were still lagging pre-pandemic levels. A report from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics released earlier this year showed enrollment was down 3 percent in 2021, with 49.4 million students compared with 50.8 million before the pandemic, in 2019.

In the Washington region, preliminary enrollment data from last school year showed that school systems were beginning to recover from coronavirus enrollment drops, but still struggling to make a full recovery.

In Montgomery County and Prince George’s County public schools show that enrollment was up but hadn’t reached pre-pandemic levels. Similarly in Northern Virginia, enrollment was on the rise, but no system had fully rebounded. In the District, before school closures, 51,037 students were enrolled in the city’s traditional public schools. Enrollment fell to 49,035 during the 2021-2022 school year, but surpassed 50,000 students for the first time since the pandemic last school year.