Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings: Reopening ACPS cautiously and methodically

Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings: Reopening ACPS cautiously and methodically
Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

By Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D.

One of the most difficult decisions required of any school division across the United States, and even the world, right now is how to open schools safely this fall.

COVID-19 is a highly unpredictable virus that we are still learning about. This uncertainty means the situation is not just unprecedented, it is constantly changing. As we dig deeper into the planning process for reopening city schools in September, there are still many unknowns for which no one has answers.

It is imperative that we plan strategically, cautiously and methodically. Thorough and detailed strategizing will ensure the successful delivery of whichever model we choose to implement as well as our contingency plans.

As we navigate this new terrain for reopening schools, it is critically important that we employ thorough and smart planning, while understanding the need for flexibility, as guidance is ever changing. It is possible that we may go into the fall with one model of learning and need to rapidly adjust to another as circumstances change.

The situation is going to require a degree of flexibility and patience from everyone – staff, students, families and our community partners. We also need to accept that no situation is ever going to be perfect for everyone.

As ACPS works to reopen schools, it is vital that we continue to seek feedback from our community – staff, students, families and community partners – so that we can collectively put forth our very best ideas and solutions. To this end, we engaged a group of city and community leaders known as Thought Partners to help us distill the complex elements that will make the difference between a plan that works and one that requires us to pivot come September.

We have also established cross-functional planning teams that will focus on the following five areas: social, emotional and academic learning; human resources and capital programs; health and safety; financial management; and school and community relations. Furthermore, these cross-functional planning teams will identify internal and external lessons learned, brainstorm potential challenges and opportunities, and develop action plans to guide the reopening of school buildings and ensure clear expectations for students, staff and families.

In addition, from July 6 through July 13, we will be surveying staff and families. What they share about their thoughts on returning to our classrooms or continuing virtually at home, as well as the rationale for their choice, will give us a clear view of the comfort levels of our staff and families.

During the week of July 13, we will be offering 10 webinars where staff and parents can get their questions answered directly from our school and central office leaders. Also, we will be engaging families, students, staff and community groups in a series of focus groups designed to dig deeper into our prospective plans for the fall and help us resolve any outstanding issues.

We are considering two likely models for reopening schools on Sept. 8: a model where we remain fully virtual with refinement based on feedback from students, staff and families from school closures in March through June 2020; or a hybrid model where there is both virtual and in-person learning adhering to social distancing and social gathering guidelines.
ACPS will be sharing details of its models and possible options for reopening its schools throughout the process in its online newsletter, ACPS Express and on the ACPS-at-Home website. By the time the final plan for the reopening of schools is shared with the school board on Aug. 7, our staff and families will have a pretty clear idea of how we plan to operate for the 2020-2021 academic year.

On Aug. 7, the detailed reports from our five cross-functional planning teams, who will spend the month of July comprehensively planning for all eventualities, will be shared with the public and the school board. Detailed guidance about what this means for the daily routines of staff and families will be shared a week later on Aug. 14.

Because of the fluid situation we are facing, we need to be flexible about which final option or model we will adopt. It may also be necessary to explore hybrids of these models or options. The better we explore all scenarios and prepare for them now, the better we will be able to deliver a comprehensive plan that works for all students and families in the fall.

The one thing of which we are certain is that when it comes time to implement a plan, ACPS will have in place solid options for educating the children of Alexandria. This is not something that will be left to chance – we are not pinning our hopes on the sudden availability of a vaccine or treatment. There will be no easy fix. In the weeks to come, our team will be leading a comprehensive and conscientious exploration of the courses of action open to us and I am confident we will find a way through this crisis.

No matter what circumstances present themselves in the 2020-21 academic year, our students will be actively engaged and learning, and will continue to be successful.
The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.