As Fairfax County School Board members attempt to lead the commonwealth’s largest school district back from the depths of the COVID crisis, they now have another challenge on their plate – finding a new superintendent.
The incumbent, Scott Brabrand, surprised the community last week by announcing he would depart at the end of his contract, which runs through next June.
He will have served in the post for five years, and said he had no plans for his future.
“I’ve got a little bit of a gift of time to figure that out this year,” he said. “But right now, my focus is on the fall.”
Brabrand, who’d begun his education career as an FCPS teacher, spent five years as superintendent of the much smaller Lynchburg City Schools before succeeding former FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza in 2017.
Like school leaders across the nation, Braband’s main focus since March 2020 has been how to keep students learning in the midst of the COVID crisis. And like others in his job nationwide, it was something of a no-win situation.
FCPS’s change to online-only learning in the spring of 2020 had multiple technical failures. People also hacked the system and behaved badly. The school system’s information-technology director later resigned.
Brabrand and FCPS came under criticism last fall when they scrapped a planned “hybrid” model (mixing online and in-person education) in favor of remote learning only.
Classes kicked off last fall with 9,700 fewer students than one year earlier. Many former students went to private schools, which offered in-person or hybrid classes, or were home-schooled instead. Brabrand said FCPS is trying to bring back those students.
“We’ve been doing a robust campaign door-to-door,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of social media. We’ve done signage at all of our schools, just to get the word out to the community and to check in with parents” about their concerns about students’ returning.
The superintendent said he understood why some parents desired in-person classes for their children, but added school officials, who were responsible for the lives of 180,000 students, had been trying to find the right balance with only inconclusive data available.
Whether students this fall will need to wear masks will depend on an upcoming ruling by the Virginia Department of Health, Brabrand said. Virginia’s mask guidance expires July 25.
“I think there’s going to be a mask policy of some sort, but I don’t know yet whether it will be mandatory,” he said. “I think we’ve got to take a hard look, particularly in elementary [schools], where none of our kids have access to the vaccine.”
“Getting people vaccinated is going to be the quickest way to return to normal,” he said. “Now we’re waiting to see that age get lowered so we can get our elementary kids in, too.”
The pandemic drove home the need for school officials to communicate frequently with the public to counteract disinformation or information from conflicting sources, Brabrand said. The crisis also speeded up the FCPS initiative to provide technology, such as laptops, to all students, he said.
“Every kid will have a device this year in Fairfax,” he said. “But right now, we’ve got to focus on creating a high-quality, in-person environment and really assessing kids where they are socio-emotionally and academically when they return these first weeks of school.”
Besides weathering the pandemic, Brabrand also has faced criticism for advocating for admissions changes at the system’s flagship magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, to include more non-white or Asian students.
Brabrand became interested in an educational career in 1992. While serving as an executive with Bell Atlantic, he took part in an adopt-a-school program in Fairfax County and loved the experience. In 1993, he took part in a career-switcher program at George Washington University and became a full-time substitute teacher. The following year, he became a full-time social-studies teacher with FCPS.
Brabrand holds a bachelor’s degree in foreign service (specializing in international economics) from Georgetown University, a master’s in education from George Washington University and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from Virginia Tech.
The Sun Gazette reached out to School Board members for comment, but did not receive responses. Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) said it’s time for new FCPS leadership.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to be this School Board that picks the new leader,” Herrity said. “We’re all aware of the mismanagement of the school system over the last several years. My biggest disappointment its there wasn’t a single mention of academics in the resignation note, which instead focused on politics.”
Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance president Arthur Purves said FCPS does a poor job, despite lavish funding.
“It serves the affluent but provides no upward mobility for the rest, who fall behind by third grade and never catch up,” he said.