Elementary school teachers and sisters Theresa Wood (left) and Maria Wood stand outside William W. Hall Academy in Capitol Heights. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Elementary school teachers and sisters Theresa Wood (left) and Maria Wood stand outside William W. Hall Academy in Capitol Heights. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

First of a two-part series

Maria Wood, 34, will begin her 13th year this year as an elementary school teacher at William W. Hall Academy in Capitol Heights, Md.

Besides the joy of teaching second graders how to read and write, the educator’s younger sister, who works down the hall as a first-grade math and health teacher, represents an added bonus for her return to in-class instruction.

“We commute to work together and live together [in northeast D.C.],” said Theresa Wood, 31, who begins her second year at William Hall Academy. “It is so cool to have my sister with me. Teaching is so encompassing, so it’s great to have someone share that closeness with you.”

Both said they can’t wait to see the enthusiastic young people, albeit with their faces partially covered with masks, on the first day of school, Wednesday, Sept. 8.

The elementary and vaccinated educators also understand they’re part of the nearly 22,000 Prince George’s County public school employees working amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The majority Black jurisdiction, which represents the second-largest school district in Maryland, enrolls about 136,000 students and continues to lead the state with the most confirmed cases.

In the meantime, PGCPS officials must fill several gaps to ensure a smooth first day including hiring dozens of teachers, specifically specialty positions, like special education and mathematics.

The district hosted teacher hiring events this summer including a drive-thru session on Thursday, Aug. 26, outside Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale.

Public schools CEO Monica Goldson promised during a telephone town hall last week that teachers and other staff will be prepared to receive students.

“Be patient with us on the first day of school. I do expect that there’ll be a few bumps in the road,” she said. “But when we come together as a community, we’re able to overcome any obstacles that come our way.”

County Faces Bus Driver Shortage

Prince George’s also joins an unfortunate national trend in a shortage of school bus drivers which industry leaders attribute to COVID-19 and other job opportunities to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for public and private transportation companies.

In Nevada, the Washoe County School District held a hiring event in June https://bit.ly/3ztp6Ns to offer $2,00 bonuses for new bus drivers and a $1,000 for referrals from current employees.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools in Pennsylvania announced earlier last month a shortage of 426 bus drivers forcing the school district to change the first day of school from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8.

Curt Macysyn, executive director for the National School Transportation Association, in an interview with CBS News, said some drivers left the profession over concerns of contracting COVID-19. Others chose to retire during the pandemic.

“Typically, there have been bus driver shortages at the beginning of the school year during the last few years but the pandemic exacerbated that,” he said. “We are challenged like a lot of industries are challenged.”

As of last week in Prince George’s County, a bus driver shortage stood around 170.

Rudolph Saunders, the school district’s director of transportation, said on the town hall with Goldson that buses plan to operate at normal capacity. About 44 high and middle school students, or an average of two per seat, will ride on each bus. The number increases to at least 50 for elementary students with two students per seat, possibly three in larger seats, Saunders said.

With more than 12,000 elementary students registered for virtual learning this upcoming school year, some bus routes may be consolidated which would ease the number of bus drivers needed. A similar measure has been proposed in Howard County, Maryland.

“We have to maintain that seating capacity in order to get all the students back to school,” Saunders said. “We’re battling a current driver shortage, so it doesn’t really allow us to break that down any further.”

Classroom Safety Protocols to be Enforced 

As the Wood sisters prepare their classrooms at William Hall Academy, safety protocols which they must follow, join other preparatory tasks like placing math problems, sight words and colorful posters on the walls.

Some of the new safety measures slated this fall include:

  • Arrange seats so students are at least three feet apart.
  • Ensure an adequate supply of hand sanitizer and masks.
  • Follow a daily handwashing schedule for students every 30 minutes.

The educators said the hybrid schedule in April prepared them to handle the upcoming school year with the regular five-day-a-week routine. Both women work with three groups of students with estimated class sizes of 18 to 20.

Although the students gained technology skills during virtual learning, they said younger children learn social and emotional skills through in-person instruction.

Maria Wood summarized how to assess which students may need additional help. For example, teachers may need to manage small group lessons with a few students to work on letter sounds and sight words while allowing other students to work independently at their desks.

“Children will come back on many different levels,” she said. “I learned from last school year that kids are resilient and can adjust [even] in the middle of this pandemic.”

Theresa Wood’s health knowledge extends more personally given her diagnosis of lupus, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at as an autoimmune disease with various symptoms such as fever, muscle or joint pain and chest pain.

The agency highlights lupus can be difficult to assess and there isn’t a cure but says those affected can still live long, productive lives.

“I am in a high-risk category but I love my job and take all of the precautions,” Theresa Wood said. “All we can do is get vaccinated and wear our masks and hope for the best.”

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