ACPS reopening raises equity concerns

ACPS reopening raises equity concerns
The Slack children — from left, Riker (10), Adella (6) and Sebastian (8) — learning remotely in spring 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

By Olivia Tucker |

Alexandria City Public Schools will begin the fall quarter remotely — a decision that has garnered praise from public-health experts and some parents but that has also sparked discussion over equity and accessibility issues in online learning.

The school board on Aug. 7 adopted the Virtual PLUS+ plan for the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, submitting the proposal to the Virginia Department of Education on Aug. 14. According to ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., the “PLUS+” in the plan’s name reflects its commitment to delivering a host of services to students and families as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact Northern Virginia. Yet some still express concern that COVID-19 poses challenges for families that ACPS — a division that serves more than 15,000 students, 37.3% of whom identify as Hispanic and 25.8% as Black — will be unable to mitigate.

“I think we really need to start believing in and acting on keeping racial equity at the heart of our work,” Hutchings said. “[It] is going to require our community to have a paradigm shift in how we think and how we operate, and the time is now.”

The Virtual PLUS+ model incorporates five elements: learning, access, food access, child care and helpline. The proposal states that these key areas will provide students with “enhanced support” as an extension of the digital school day. In addition to social-emotional support and “technology enhancements,” the division plans to continue its meal-distribution program, partner with community organizations to provide child care options for families in need and provide “live multilingual phone support.”

According to the proposal, school leaders will continue to engage with students, families and staff in the coming weeks to discern more specifically which areas stakeholders need support in, refining their planning accordingly. ACPS is scheduled to start classes on Sep. 8.

“Equity is the framework in which we make every decision, and this was no different,” the proposal states, referencing the division’s strategic plan for 2025.

For grades kindergarten through 12, students will be expected to attend live classes remotely four days a week. Monday will be an asynchronous learning day for students and a planning day for staff. The proposal notes that English learner students will still receive instruction in a dedicated block, and special education students will receive virtual services based on their individualized education programs. Master schedules for each of the schools will include “daily dedicated time… in which to build relationships, reinforce and establish positive routines, and develop language and strategies that promote mental and physical well-being.”

ACPS will continue to provide breakfast and lunch at its food distribution sites, in addition to offering snacks for the duration of school-building closures. The division is also expanding its device distribution program to include students in pre-kindergarten through the second grade, and providing internet access for families in need.

School leaders remain in talks with community organizations regarding child care options for the fall — particularly for families with essential workers or parents who must otherwise work outside the home. The division is aiming to create a “matrix,” or database, detailing local child care offerings, and is currently ideating financial solutions to make these options more accessible to families.

Alexandria nonprofits are also stepping up to fill in the social and education gaps that remote learning causes – all the while adapting their own programs to make them COVID-19-safe.

“We want to see the spirit that [students] all have and their imagination and gusto,” Kandice Ferrell, communications manager for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, said. “[They] can’t do that if they don’t have the help to begin with.”

In response to the pandemic, BGCGW launched Clubhouse @ Your House, a virtual space that provides daily live programming for students, regardless of their proximity to a physical club. According to Ferrell, the platform offers general tutoring and STEM education, in addition to fitness initiatives and “opportunities for friendship and mentorship” — a component Ferrell described as “critical” for youth facing feelings of pandemic-induced isolation.

BGCGW’s Alexandria location plans to reopen this fall at limited capacity to maintain social distancing and observe other public-health measures, Ferrell said. The clubhouses throughout the region have extended their weekday hours in recognition of the challenges some working families might face with remote learning.

The Campagna Center restarted “a very small measure” of in-person programming this July, focusing on families in need of child care to continue working outside the home, Tammy Mann, Campagna Center president and chief executive officer, said. The center is planning to offer both in-person and virtual services this fall.

At Casa Chirilagua, weekly tutoring has continued for elementary school students — albeit virtually — according to youth programs director Marissa Salgado. She said that members of the Kids Club and Teens Club groups connect regularly on phone calls.

All three organizations have coordinated food distribution efforts during the pandemic. The Campagna Center has also provided diapers, baby formula and other child care essentials to its families.

Salgado emphasized that despite ACPS’s best efforts, this fall will likely push some students and families in the Alexandria community to the brink, as the virus exacerbates pre-existing inequities in the city.

“COVID — as hard as it has been — has brought to light some things that were important for people to see,” Salgado said. “I hope that we can come together as a city to continue seeing those portions of our population and [making] sure that they are cared for and that they have the means not just to survive, but to really flourish.”

One issue that will be particularly difficult for educators to address digitally is domestic violence, which the pandemic has exacerbated on a global scale, according to the United Nations. Students living in emotionally or physically abusive households will have less access to social workers and other supportive adults while learning remotely.

Hutchings said that ACPS has factored these considerations into its planning, and such concerns were one driver behind the decision to implement synchronous classes four days a week and require students to keep their cameras on. These measures will allow teachers to monitor for symptoms of an unsafe home environment, he said.

The threat of eviction is also looming large over the heads of some in the Alexandria community. According to Ferrell, one in four children in the greater Washington area live below the federal poverty line — a 2017 statistic that the coronavirus has in all likelihood intensified. Virginia’s temporary statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire on Sep. 7, the day before classes start at ACPS.

“[Eviction] is around the corner for many of our families,” Ingris Moran, a lead organizer for Tenants and Workers United, said.

Moran said that the coronavirus’ impact on the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood, where TWU is based, has been disproportionate in multiple ways. The majority of residents have experienced unemployment or underemployment as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout and are struggling to support their families.

Arlandria-Chirilagua, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate in the city, reaching 55% in May and drawing comparisons to initial hotspots like New York City, Wuhan and Milan in a TWU press release. According to the Alexandria Health Department, Hispanic and Latino residents make up 55% of coronavirus cases in the city, despite representing less than 17% of the population.

As Arlandria-Chirilagua residents struggle to make ends meet, other families in the Alexandria community are banding together to form learning pods: small groups of school-age children whose parents are pooling their resources to hire teachers for private, in-home instruction. While some view learning pods as a positive alternative to remote learning, others have criticized the concept for its potential to widen achievement gaps in schools.

“If you have the means to hire a tutor to do a pod, that will definitely exacerbate the inequity,” Charissa Slack, a local ACPS parent, said. “Not everybody has that access.”

Hutchings echoed Slack’s sentiments, saying that he doesn’t support the concept of a learning pod. While pods might have been “meaningful” in the spring, when schools had to scramble to move classes online, ACPS is well prepared to offer a quality remote education this fall, Hutchings said. He urged families to have faith in the Virtual PLUS+ plan.

“We have such a great opportunity to make Alexandria one of the most premier school divisions in this country,” Hutchings said. “We have great talent, we have the ability, we have the resources. So now it’s just a matter of us making it happen. I’m looking forward to doing that, even during a global pandemic.”