COVID reopening, TJ footage: Outgoing Fairfax Co. superintendent reflects on big debates that have shaped his tenure

In a wide-ranging interview with WTOP, Scott Brabrand discussed how his tenure, which aimed to improve school staff diversity and improve student outcomes, was interrupted by a pandemic of the century.

Weeks before masks and lockdown were discussed, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand suspected that what was then called the novel coronavirus had the potential to seriously disrupt Virginia’s largest school system.

In January 2020, a delegation from Wuhan, China arrived in the DC region with plans to visit one of the county’s middle schools. Brabrand and his team debated whether to invite the children to campus as planned, since they had already landed and spent time in New York City. Before making the decision, school system leaders recommended getting feedback from parents.

The middle school principal met the parents over morning coffee, and a huge crowd attended, Brabrand said. The parents said they were excited the students would gather but were nervous about the reports from Wuhan about the severity of the virus. Some of the parents, posing as Chinese immigrants, asked the principal to cancel all meetings between the students.

The Wuhan group stayed at a hotel in DC and toured the city, but after circumstances found their way to Brabrand, he suggested keeping the students separate. By that point, Brabrand said, it was obvious the virus was going to become something for school officials to think about.

Within a month, Virginia’s largest school system canceled international field trips. All excursions were canceled until the beginning of March. And then, as expected, it took a two-week break.

Brabrand, who was hired as superintendent in 2017, ends his five-year tenure on Thursday when Michelle Reid is scheduled to take the oath of office and serve as his successor. On Friday, he will become executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

Among many topics, in a wide-ranging interview with WTOP, Brabrand discussed how his tenure, which aimed to improve school staff diversity and improve student outcomes, was interrupted by a pandemic, which Brabrand – alongside school integration – called the biggest Event designated to affect public education in its history.

“It’s been a tough time,” Brabrand said of the pandemic. “Our country was founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The pandemic has been a great debate about life and liberty—whose life versus whose liberty. We tried to decide the collective risk to our entire community and COVID versus the individual risk to a single person of returning during COVID.”

In the exclusive interview, Brabrand also addressed hiring challenges, saying the county should have improved communications during the pandemic, and stressed the importance of the changes he is overseeing to the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.


By the time school systems began transitioning to virtual learning in the spring of 2020, all high school students in Fairfax County already had laptops, Brabrand said. The school board approved funding for this initiative the year before the pandemic.

But the county’s technology systems “haven’t been stress tested as well as they should have been,” he said.

The county had outdated technology and its video calling infrastructure was “behind the times,” Brabrand said.

Students and parents had trouble logging in, and the school system was forced to cancel classes. On April 22, 2020, Maribeth Luftglass, the school system’s top tech officer who has served in the county since 1999, resigned.

The county switched providers at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, and Brabrand hoped to get most students back in class before the winter break. But then COVID-19 cases spiked, and with the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines weeks away, Brabrand said he decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“The reality is, were we prepared for this to be entirely virtual? It’s clear the record shows it wasn’t us,” Brabrand said. ” … It was in my hands the life and death of over 180,000 children and by extension a few million people with their families. I’m still looking back I wish we could have done it [back in person] a little earlier.”

Christy Hudson of the Fairfax County Parents Association described Brabrand’s tenure as a “mixed bag” largely because of the pandemic.

“FCPS hasn’t led the pack in reopening or really in their response to virtual learning or anything related to pandemic learning,” Hudson said. “Unfortunately, that’s how he will be remembered.”

Sue Zoldak, who founded the group Do Better FCPS, said the end of Brabrand’s tenure was “the apparent result of a plethora of missteps that began in March 2020”.

Brabrand acknowledged that communication should have been better during the pandemic.

“We could all have communicated better together, and we politicized the pandemic and medicine,” Brabrand said. “And unfortunately, we have overly politicized public education. The pendulum will slowly but surely swing back.”

To help students catch up, the county has offered free virtual tutoring and funded a telemental health pilot program in its recent budget.

Brabrand said he believes spring testing results would be better than expected, saying a silver lining to the pandemic is that “more people have understood that mental health isn’t a bad word.”

“There were real gains made,” Brabrand said. “… We had record crowds at football games. We had a record crowd at the homecoming dance. Why? Because the kids wanted to go back. They wanted to network. And the sense of community is even stronger. Kids, maybe all of us, took for granted the power of public schools to bring everyone back together.”

Kimberly Adams, President of the Fairfax Education Association, said in a statement: “Dr. Brabrand was tasked with making decisions to keep everyone safe while moving our system forward. He did his best to take care of both the students and the staff. We knew no matter what he did or said, nothing would be the right answer for everyone.

For more than five years, Dr. Brabrand for this and received full funding of our school budget needs. This year, our fully funded budget includes an incremental increase and a 4% MSA for employees.”

“History will prove us”

In 2020, the school system changed its admissions policy for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, often recognized as one of the top public high schools in the country. The changes eliminated a $100 application fee and eliminated the previously used merit-based admissions process.

The new application process also eliminated a standardized test and considered an applicant’s socioeconomic status, course load and problem-solving skills with the goal of improving diversity.

The group Coalition for TJ filed a lawsuit, alleging the admissions policy discriminates against Asian Americans. A district court judge agreed, but the Supreme Court said in April the admissions policy can continue to apply while the school board appeals the lower court’s ruling.

Brabrand said the changes are not about discrimination but about “bringing everyone around the table – all groups, all walks of life, all ethnicities”.

Some middle schools in the county had never accepted a student into the school, Brabrand said.

“The board ultimately came to a decision that I think the story will prove to us well,” he said. “We have the Fourth Circle, which I believe will make a decision sometime in the fall.”

School board member Abrar Omeish said the decision to appeal the court ruling showed Brabrand’s “can-do attitude” that has helped him lead the county.

“It’s very difficult to navigate the cultural, racial, class – whatever – diversity of dynamics and identity politics that our country struggles with across the board,” Omeish said. “His goal has always been to do the right thing.”

“Great Reflection”

At the start of Brabrand’s tenure in 2017, he said, 25 schools in the system did not have a single black educator. Now that number has dropped to three.

The percentage of Asian, black and Hispanic teachers hired has increased, according to a report submitted to the school board earlier this month. The county’s measures to increase the diversity of qualified applicants are having a positive impact, the report says.

Actions taken include funding an initiative aimed at hiring male and color teachers. A $500,000 investment in the program has been included in the fiscal year 2023 budget.

As a finalist for a principal job, Brabrand said she recently “grew up in Maryland to be the only person of her ethnic background in school and how isolating she was — except in the cafeteria.” [where] She saw a person who looked like her. That was the high point of her day. We cannot underestimate the power of children to want to see role models.”

Regardless, Brabrand said retirements and layoffs among employees fell “by more than half” in 2020, and he said the numbers remained low the following year. This year, the numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels, he said.

“We had a great reflection,” said Brabrand. “A lot of people who were probably going to leave anyway have persevered and left during the pandemic and so you see a small outlier. How do we make everyone fall in love with her? [the] public education I fell in love [with] 30 years ago? We need to rekindle the spark.”

‘Like a dream’

Brabrand was working for a telecommunications company in the 1990s when he spent an hour each week teaching English to English learners in a classroom at Oakton High School. From the first session, he said, teaching was “like a dream.”

Brabrand completed a career change program and did an internship in the county school system before becoming a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and later principal in Lynchburg.

Now Brabrand will lead the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, which oversees the state’s 133 superintendents. He said he intends to bring the same passion discovered in that Oakton classroom to the task of empowering state leaders.

He said he wants to help Virginia’s principals “make sure they fall in love with the principal and stay in love, which is an extremely tough job.” During the pandemic, many people thought that superintendents across the country were in a no-win situation. No matter what you did, it was going to be tough. We need to make sure we continue to attract and retain great Superintendents in Virginia and across the country.”

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