Mental health, teacher shortages and monkeypox join list of covid concerns
Across the Washington region, thousands of children are getting ready to return to school. Teachers are preparing lessons and setting up their classrooms. Parents are booking last-minute doctor’s appointments for children behind on routine vaccinations.
The past few years have been difficult, with challenges including the coronavirus pandemic that forced some of the most drastic shifts in teaching and learning, and instances of school violence and culture war clashes.
Those issues — and others — are still on the minds of parents and teachers. In response to a Washington Post survey, parents and teachers said they were concerned about the lingering mental health challenges the pandemic caused for their children, students and themselves. Some also were concerned by the seeming disrespect shown by some students, parents and politicians for education and the work done in schools. Others fear a new health risk with the spread of the monkeypox virus, and the possibility of re-emerging coronavirus outbreaks continue to haunt many of them.
Still, many parents and teachers say they are optimistic about the new school year, hopeful that the past year of in-person learning has made a difference in students’ academic, social and emotional standing.
“That’s the big question,” said David Potasznik, an ESOL teacher at Rockville High School in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools. “We’re hoping … but the fact remains that we’re behind where we would have expected.”
Many of the students Potasznik teaches are newcomers to the school district, so he’s uncertain whether they learned virtually or in-person during the year before. Montgomery County dropped its masking requirement in the spring; that move can help Potasznik teach students English, since they can see his mouth as he forms words. But Potasznik, 68, is in an age group that is more vulnerable to the coronavirus. He has both shots of the vaccine and two boosters, and he says he has avoided contracting covid-19 thus far. As the school start date has approached, he has considered whether to prioritize his health by masking or to forgo masking to better model speech patterns for his students.
“I guess I’m just going to have to see what it’s like in a week and make a call,” Potasznik said.
Advika Agarwal, a rising 11th-grader at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., was looking forward to seeing her friends back in the classroom and to work on environmental issues around the school district, including starting more composting programs at schools.
She says she is mostly positive about the upcoming school year but is concerned about coronavirus transmission rates increasing. She said she has seen emails from the school system’s PTA members about reinstating a mask mandate. Regardless of the school system’s decision, Agarwal said she plans to continue to wear a mask and sanitize her hands frequently.
“Cases are kind of coming down and then going up again, and it’s just kind of unpredictable,” Agarwal, 16, said.
Like many districts around the country, and most in the D.C. metro area, Montgomery County has made masks optional. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its covid guidelines this month, recommending that schools end quarantines for staffers and students exposed to the coronavirus and discontinue test-to-stay programs that allowed exposed students to stay in school if they repeatedly tested negative for the coronavirus and showed no symptoms of covid-19. The CDC’s guidelines are not mandatory, but many schools systems use them to set their own policies and, consequently, also have relaxed their covid rules.
In Virginia’s Prince William County, where school starts Monday, Marion Lasswell’s concern centers mostly on her two children still in grade school — and she has one starting college — and especially on her daughter, a high-school senior. Her son is in seventh-grade, is on the autism spectrum and receives an Individualized Education Program. For both children, she doubts their ability to behave appropriately with friends and in classroom settings: “They’ve been socially isolated for such a long time, I just don’t know how they would deal with other people.”
Lasswell’s children underwent fully virtual schooling for about two years. Although they went back to the classroom last year, her children kept their masks on and were very strict about social distancing, so she doesn’t feel that the year of brick-and-mortar instruction made much of a difference in teaching them how to speak to other children their age.
She said she feels less anxious about her son after an open house Thursday during which she watched him “interact with other kids, which was a little reassuring.” She is still apprehensive for her daughter, though, because the girl struggled intensely during isolation.
“We moved here just before the pandemic struck, so she hasn’t really been able to make friends as easily,” Lasswell said. “And in that age group, they already have their cliques and stuff.”
As districts continue to adjust to the realities of the two-year-old coronavirus pandemic, there are concerns about a different virus: monkeypox. Dominique Moore, a teacher at Johnson Middle School in Southeast Washington, said there has not been much guidance about dealing with a potential outbreak.
Nathaniel Beers, a general and developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in D.C., said that despite the low numbers — only two cases had been confirmed in children as of Aug. 10 — parents do have concerns about monkeypox.
Monkeypox is different from many other childhood viruses, such as the flu, coronavirus and chickenpox, in that it requires not just respiratory transmission, but direct and sustained contact and is most likely spread with direct contact with a lesion.
Beers, who supervises the Children’s National program that places school nurses in D.C. public and charter schools, said that nurses’ most recent training includes an update on monkeypox, how to identify it and reminders about taking precautions as they care for children.
Most viruses are contagious for a short time, but people with monkeypox may have to isolate for two to four weeks, he said. “It’s not ideal, given the last two and a half years that we have had to have a virus that would cause prolonged periods of time that a child was unable to return to school.”
Beers said he does not expect to see widespread monkeypox disease in schools and day cares. Instead, spread is more likely to be seen on college campuses, “where people are living in congregate settings and young people are making questionable decisions,” Beers said.
Beyond the health questions, some parents and teachers also have academic concerns about their students.
“The two years that they were virtual, they were literally cheating. They would look up the answers on Google,” Lasswell of Prince William said. “I’m not sure if they have the quality of education or are caught up to where they need to be.”
Nonetheless, she is beginning the 2022-2023 school year with optimism, she said. She is determined to feel hopeful for what the fresh school year will bring. “I’m worried but hopeful. Concerned but hopeful,” she said, emphasizing each “but.”
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.
Metro area systems begin classes Monday. Here’s what to expect in your school:
School system and city leaders launched an urgent effort this summer to bring roughly 30,000 children — or a quarter of public and private school students — up to date on routine vaccinations for illnesses including polio and measles.
Students over age 12 also will need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend school this year, a measure that was passed by the D.C. Council and has drawn some criticism for its potential to exacerbate academic disparities between Black and White children. Students who do not comply with the requirement will be barred from school.
Students have 20 days after the first day of school, however, to comply. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education will host weekly vaccination events next month.
D.C. schools, like other districts nearby, also will soften some coronavirus protocols to mesh with updated guidance from the CDC. But D.C. schools will continue to enforce a “test-to-return” policy, which requires students and staffers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test for the first day of class.
D.C. also is feeling the effects of a nationwide shortage of teachers. D.C.’s public school system serves more than 50,000 students and employs about 4,000 teachers on average each year. Leaders expect to start the school year with about 150 open positions, and central-services staffers will fill teacher gaps during September. Substitute teaching contracts also will be expanded.
But those measures do not address the root causes of teacher resignations, including an evaluation system that feels punitive and inflexible, said Lucia Cuomo, an ESL teacher in Northeast Washington.
“I think it’s time for policymakers and school districts to reevaluate how teachers are treated all around,” Cuomo said, “to reevaluate how change is being implemented and to revaluate how teachers are being financially rewarded.”
Maryland’s largest school districts — in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — are bringing students back Aug. 29 amid hundreds of teacher and staff vacancies.
As of Friday morning, 187 full-time teacher positions were open, with 34 applicants in the process of being hired, Montgomery County officials said. Also, 457 staff positions were open. Seventy bus driver positions were open, with 41 candidates being trained.
The teacher openings will be filled with substitute teachers, many of which are retired teachers, until the positions are filled permanently, and Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight has pledged not to increase class sizes.
Prince George’s County has about 900 vacant teacher positions and 400 vacant support staff positions, officials said. Teacher gaps will be filled with substitute teachers and retirees; with increased pay. Extra pay also will be offered to teachers who cover more classrooms.
Prince George’s County Public Schools, with roughly 128,000 students, has 168 bus driver openings. Parents have been warned to expect delays during the first few weeks of school. Bell times have been shifted at some schools to make sure students get to class on time.
Parents also will be allowed to enter school buildings this school year, but many parent-teacher meetings are likely to be conducted virtually. The school system has a mask mandate for students and staffers on school grounds, with coronavirus transmission levels being periodically reviewed. The school system will provide coronavirus rapid tests to symptomatic students.
Masks are optional in Montgomery County Public Schools. The school system’s new coronavirus protocols fall in line with the CDC’s latest relaxed guidance for schools. MCPS also will provide coronavirus tests to students who are in high-risk situations, such as during confirmed outbreaks, and to symptomatic students.
In Northern Virginia, school will begin this year with few coronavirus precautions, some stopgap measures to solve teacher shortages and, in the Alexandria district, extra precautions to ensure student safety.
Both Fairfax County Public Schools — the state’s largest system, with roughly 179,000 students — and Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls close to 16,000 students, send children back into classrooms Monday.
Neither district is requiring masking, per state law. Alexandria is requiring that staffers be vaccinated against the coronavirus; Fairfax is not. The vaccine is not required for students.
The Loudoun school system and the Arlington system do not return children to classrooms until Aug. 25 and Aug. 29, respectively. Loudoun enrolls slightly more than 81,000 students, and Arlington enrolls roughly 27,000. Loudoun is not requiring employee vaccination, but Arlington is; neither district is requiring students to be vaccinated.
All four districts experienced a rise in teacher resignations over the past academic year, but officials said staffing gaps are shrinking closer to the start of the school year.
Arlington was down to 56 full-time-teacher vacancies as of Aug. 18. Alexandria has shrunk its teacher vacancies to about 4 percent (60 or so positions). Fairfax is 99 percent staffed with teachers, and Loudoun is 98 percent staffed.
Each district will rely on short- and long-term substitute teachers to ensure that all classes are staffed.
Alexandria’s start of classes also will bring increased safety measures, after a run of safety incidents involving students in the 2021-2022 school year, including the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old near Alexandria City High School in May.
The district is instituting a policy requiring students to have their school identification cards with them each day. Secondary schools also will receive additional “school security officers … to support school administrators,” the district has said. The district also has expanded cellphone service at Alexandria City High School.