Parents watch as their students board the bus for Woodlin Elementary School in Silver Spring. Credit: Steve Bohnel

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:15 and 9:45 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, to add more information about the first day of school.

About 160,000 Montgomery County Public Schools students return to classrooms Monday for the first day of the 2022-23 school year, as county leaders aim for a more “normal” year following two dominated by COVID-19. 

Gone this year are mask mandates, COVID-19 screening testing, capacity limits on buses and in classrooms, and most other major mitigation strategies employed by the district since the pandemic took hold in March 2020. 

This year, MCPS leaders say they’re looking forward to “refocusing” attention on students’ academic needs, especially those exacerbated by learning issues resulting from virtual classes during the height of the pandemic. 

“There is something magical about the first day of every school year,” school board President Brenda Wolff said in a message to Bethesda Beat on Friday. “After dealing with Covid for 2 school years, I have a deeper appreciation for the traditions, rituals and giddy joy that accompanies the first day of school for our children. … The first day of school is a celebration of possibilities, it represents a fresh opportunity to connect students with the power of their own minds.” 

This year marked the return of pre-pandemic return-to-school activities such as open houses and new student orientations welcoming students and families to learn about their schools and meet staff members.

Like other schools around the county, Gaithersburg Middle School was abuzz with activity shortly before 8 a.m. Monday as students arrived in droves for the first day of classes. Groups gathered outside of the main entrance, embracing and high/fiving after a summer apart. Others ran down the sidewalk toward the school when they saw their friends. 

Staff members were handing out schedules near the bus drop off, and the school’s principal could be heard over the loudspeaker, cheerfully reminding students of school rules and welcoming them back for a new year. 

Students arrive Monday morning at Gaithersburg Middle School. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

Near downtown Silver Spring, several parents were gathered at two bus stops on Monday to watch their Woodlin Elementary School students board school buses. The Silver Spring school is being rebuilt and has been relocated to a holding school in Bethesda. At Noyes Drive and Woodland Drive, Alicia Araujo was waiting to send a second-grader off to school.

Araujo said Monday marked a “a lot of transition” for parents, teachers, and students. With MCPS no longer requiring students to wear masks, that marked a return “to a regular environment,” she said. 

Joanna Snyder, whose two daughters were starting kindergarten and second grade on Monday, said she was excited about having both kids in public school, and no longer having to worry about child care.

Snyder, a curriculum developer for science classes for kindergarten through eighth grade, said she has seen how much of a toll the coronavirus pandemic took on students, teachers, administrators and other support staff. The new school year, given that the coronavirus remains under control, should be relief for them, she said.

“My impression from friends is that wave of fatigue caught parents and teachers, and then children … and then of course [many] teachers are parents, so they’re getting hit from both sides,” Snyder said.

Araujo and Snyder both commended the Woodlin teachers, who they said have done a magnificent job guiding students through the pandemic.

Meanwhile, less than a mile away at another Woodlin Elementary bus stop at Noyes Drive and First Avenue, parents were busy taking photos of their children before another bus rolled up. 

Mikey Franklin, father of a first-grader, called the start of the school year a “new normal” as students, teachers, and support staff figure out how to navigate public schooling after multiple waves of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Franklin said continued academic progress for his daughter was key, but ultimately, getting her excited about school is most important.

“She’s six, so the key is that love of learning … and that continued socialization and interaction with other students,” Franklin said.

He added that he’s grateful for teachers, support staff and administrators who “move mountains” every day in order to ensure that children have a good learning environment.

Araujo and Snyder agreed. It’s important to give everyone some slack when dealing with difficulties at school because of effects of the pandemic or for other reasons, Snyder said.

“It’s trying to be kind of everybody and stepping back when things might not seem fair or like they’re going like they should,” Snyder said. “Looking through that ‘kindness lens’ is important.” 

At Washington Grove Elementary School in Gaithersburg, third-grader Kylie Thompson said Monday morning she was most excited to meet her new teachers and see her friends.

Her father, Jason, said he was focused on seeing how the schools manage any lingering teacher shortages and making sure “all of the students receive quality instruction and the attention they need.”

Cousins Saniyah Baker, left, and Shian Farrow and get ready for their first day of school Monday morning at Luxmanor Elementary School in North Bethesda. Credit: Dan Schere

Students and parents at Luxmanor Elementary School in North Bethesda seemed excited to return to school as they walked together across Tilden Lane as a a crossing guard directed traffic or disembarked from their school buses.

Parents who spoke to a Bethesda Beat reporter outside the school said they also were “excited” for the students to return and that they are hopeful the school district will ensure their kids are safe, two years into the pandemic. 

Third-grader Shian Farrow, said she was most looking forward to “friends,” “teachers” and “lunch.” 

MCPS leaders said during last week’s school board meeting that their focus now is on helping students who struggled during virtual classes to improve academically. MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight said she’s also intent on “rebuilding trust” between parents and the school district, and supporting the mental health needs of students and staff members. 

During a press conference with county government leaders last week, McKnight said she believes MCPS is “stabilized” this school year “in a different way than we have been before,” referring to the tumult of the past two years. 

She said that as the district has worked to address a large number of teaching vacancies (in late July there were nearly 400 full-time openings), community members have stepped forward and offered their help. That includes retirees who are certified to teach certain subjects and community members volunteering their time and expertise in various ways. 

“I just really want to say that speaks to the strength of the community in Montgomery County,” McKnight said. “There’s something special to be said about how we always find a way to come together around the commitment of our children here.” 

As of Friday afternoon, there were 169 full-time teaching vacancies, according to MCPS spokesman Chris Cram. There were an additional 448 openings for support staff.