Getting through the pandemic, effectively managing growth and supporting teachers are among the goals new Stafford County Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Taylor has set for the division under his administration, which begins Dec. 1.
“I imagine those challenges are similar across the state,” said Taylor, who is leaving a position as deputy superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools to come to Stafford.
Taylor held a meet-and-greet Tuesday morning to answer questions from the media.
He said that this year is the most difficult year anyone in public education has experienced, as teachers and students acclimate to in-person learning after more than a year of virtual and hybrid instruction, and everyone scrambles to figure out what was lost and how it can be regained.
“Three hundred and sixty five days ago, we would all have said, ‘This is the most challenging year in history,’” Taylor said. “Fast forward to today, and we can now say that this is the most challenging year in education. Teachers’ spirits are high, but they are tired.”
He praised the School Board for recently approving additional break days for staff, but noted that “teacher wellness won’t be solved by Friday jeans days.”
“We have to remind ourselves how important teachers are in this county,” he said. “I hope to amp up teacher recognition in this county.”
In addition to the pandemic and related teacher burnout, Stafford County schools are experiencing growing pains, with skyrocketing enrollment projections and transportation woes.
In this respect, Taylor said Stafford shares many similarities with Chesterfield, where he has worked since 2016, so he has an understanding of what is needed to effectively manage growth.
Taylor said he commends the School Board for making transportation a priority and that he will work to ensure it stays a priority.
He said there was a “demonstrated need yesterday” for a sixth county high school, which is expected to be built in the Hartwood area of the county—with an anticipated opening date of spring 2025. Officials hope the new school will relieve some transportation difficulties.
“I applaud the Board of Supervisors and the School Board for recognizing that high school No. 6 is a need,” Taylor said.
But Taylor said new elementary schools are also needed, and “a lot of consideration has to go into site selection and transportation.”
In addition to starting a new job, Taylor will also work in January with a School Board that will seat three new members: Hartwood representative Alyssa Halstead, who replaces Holly Hazard; Garrisonville representative Maureen Siegmund, who replaces Pamela Yeung; and Aquia representative Maya Guy, who replaces Irene Hollerback.
Halstead said Wednesday she thinks masks are “an unnecessary distraction” at this point and that she would like to see Stafford’s mask mandate rescinded.
Taylor said he “respects” that position on masks and “looks forward to discussing it.”
“[Removing the mandate] would be one more step towards normalcy,” he said. “But the fact is that right now, we’re under a public health order and a state law [Senate Bill 1303, which requires Virginia schools, to the maximum extent possible, to use prevention strategies outlined by CDC]. Until either of those change, we will have to be responsive to them.”
Parents seeking more involvement and choice in their children’s education have been speaking up loudly in the past year and education became a political issue during Glen Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial campaign this fall.
Taylor said he’s “thrilled” about that.
“Parents say they want to be more involved and we welcome that,” he said. “There is a place for that in SCPS.”
He continued to say that he hopes the relationship between parents and schools can be “seamless.”
“Our children’s parents are their first teachers,” Taylor said. “How might we leverage that insight better to be better partners?”
“Conflict is inevitable but drama is a choice,” he added.
Taylor—who is married and has a blended family of five children, two of whom will be enrolled in Stafford County schools this winter—said he grew up with a single parent and that his teachers “were his co-parents.”
“I wouldn’t be here today without my teachers and coaches,” he said.
He credits public education with instilling an understanding of service and the importance of community.
“Public education set me on a path to giving back,” Taylor said. “It reminded me how important it is to support everyone. As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher and to support teachers.”
“And I love working with parents because I am one,” he added.