Parent activists push for ACPS reopening

Parent activists push for ACPS reopening
(Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

A group of parents and community members have taken a stand against Alexandria City Public Schools’ reopening plan – or a perceived lack thereof.

The group, which calls itself Open ACPS, is advocating that ACPS make in-person instruction available to all students so that parents can have a choice of in-person or virtual learning. The community members have mobilized in a 571-member Facebook group and hope to raise awareness of their message and have a say as ACPS develops plans to reopen.

“This was an entirely grassroots organization that came together in a very community-driven way after it became clear to parents that the Alexandria City Public Schools system was not prioritizing a return to school,” Kirsten Dougherty, one of the group’s organizers, said.

ACPS has been operating virtually since March, with the exception of six children who resumed in-person learning on Nov. 5. Several community members have begun to question why the division’s in-person re-entry plan appears to be moving so slowly, especially compared to neighboring jurisdictions and public schools across the country.

The Open ACPS group started shortly after the school board meeting on Oct. 21, during which board members discussed the quarter two reopening plan that had been recently released. Some parents who sat in on the meeting were frustrated with what they heard, according to Kathryn Grassmeyer, one of the first people to join the Open ACPS Facebook group.

“The general tone [of the school board meeting] felt sort of complacent, like there’s not much will to open,” Grassmeyer said.

Several members of Open ACPS have emailed school board members and ACPS administration since that meeting to voice their concerns about virtual learning, ask questions about reopening plans and request to be included in the planning process.

In addition to emailing leaders and spreading the word about the Facebook group, Open ACPS members have raised more than $3,000 to make and distribute yard signs emblazoned with “#OpenACPS: Give families a choice,” according to Dougherty.

“We put the word ‘choice’ on our signs because we want to make sure that for people who have immunocompromised individuals in their home … or for whatever reason, the virtual learning model works better for them, we want them to still have that choice,” Dougherty said. 

As the grassroots movement has gained traction, it’s caught the attention of some ACPS leaders. Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., met with four of the group’s leaders on Tuesday to discuss their concerns in what he called a productive discussion.

“I think this is going to be a good start to a relationship that is going to allow us to refine our work moving forward,” Hutchings said.

In addition, Hutchings said he’d be inviting two of the group’s members to join ACPS’ reopening planning teams.

While the meeting was a positive step forward, Dougherty said she didn’t get answers to all of her questions.

A lot of the questions relate to the timeline ACPS has outlined for reopening.

The phased re-entry plan ACPS released on Oct. 15 sets a schedule to make in-person learning available to students based on a prioritization spectrum, beginning with students with disabilities in November and December and extending to all remaining students in January and February.

However, ACPS has already strayed from the original plan.

According to the plan, students with disabilities in kindergarten through second grade who were enrolled in the citywide special education program and opted for in-person education were supposed to be able to go back to school starting on Nov. 5. Instead, a group of only six kindergarten students were allowed back.

Helen Lloyd, ACPS’ executive director of communications, confirmed that originally, 57 students were eligible for Nov. 5 re-entry. Of the 57, six actually returned, 27 opted out of in-person learning and 24 wanted to return but could not be accommodated, according to Lloyd.

The reason ACPS couldn’t bring back the number of students they’d planned was lack of staff, according to Hutchings.

The division developed its re-entry plan based on data from a general survey to staff in late September, in which 23% of faculty reported they were very likely to return, followed by 33% somewhat likely, 21% somewhat unlikely and 23% very unlikely. However, after alerting eligible families that their children could return to in-person class on Nov. 5, the division found it did not have enough staff, Hutchings said.

“A lesson we learned from that now is: Let’s make sure we get the commitment from the staff first,” Hutchings said. “We really should start with how many staff members do we have, because that would determine how many students we can accommodate, and then we can begin to reach out to our families.”

ACPS sent out an “intent to return” form to staff this week to gather more “definitive and accurate data” about teachers’ willingness to resume in-person instruction, Hutchings said.

The 24 families who were planning to send their children back to school on Nov. 5 were alerted by ACPS just two days before, on Nov. 3, that their children could no longer be accommodated, Lloyd said.

The short notice, Hutchings said, was because school staff had been working up until the last minute to convince teachers to return. ACPS would have required an additional 12 staff members to bring back the 24 students who wanted to return, Lloyd said.

“They’re not even sticking to the plans that they put forth,” Grassmeyer said. “It’s frustrating that it seems like they want to appear that they’re making an effort, but it is incredibly slow. I want to applaud them for getting anybody back, but I’m not ready to give them too much credit because there are so many kids that are still at home.”

Several Open ACPS members have voiced concerns about ACPS’ transparency and said that the information ACPS distributes via newsletters and its website doesn’t always align with what they hear at school board meetings or from school administrators.

“If a mom who’s working really hard at home to juggle work and her children and life just Googles it and looks on the ACPS website, she thinks her children are coming back to school in January,” Dougherty said. “But if you watch the school board meeting, it becomes very clear that … because of capacity concerns, because they don’t have enough teachers, they don’t see any path forward to bringing children back to school in a substantive way.”

Hutchings countered that the division has made all information related to re-entry plans available to the public. 

“When families say we’re not transparent, I always tell them, we’re recording every meeting every week and posting [it online,]” Hutchings said. “We are going through all of our minutes and notes and posting them, and it’s very clear information around the work that’s happening behind the scenes. So if families really want to know the full details, they have access.”

Despite the abundance of information available, some parents are still dissatisfied.

“I consider myself an informed person,” ACPS parent Bridget Shea Westfall said, “but every time I would read some information the school put out, or attend a six-hour school board meeting after working all day and taking care of my kids, I would feel even more confused.”

The two main challenges ACPS leaders have reported as they grapple with reopening are staffing constraints and building capacity.

Capacity has been an ongoing challenge for the city’s public schools system since before the pandemic. Now that students must remain 6 feet apart, capacity presents an even greater challenge.

However, members of the Open ACPS group have questioned the logic behind ACPS’ capacity studies.

Dougherty said one of the most frustrating parts of that Oct. 21 school board meeting was a slide in a presentation that depicts a physical distancing scenario. In the slide, ACPS claims that based on a test in a first-grade classroom at Samuel Tucker Elementary, only five student desks would fit.

With limited space, the only feasible way to get children back in the classroom would be to have each student in person just one day a week, staff said at the meeting.

Several parents pushed back on the Samuel Tucker scenario, noting that the image shows additional furniture and stacked, unused desks that could be moved out of the classroom to make space.

“As a parent, we’ve all walked into our kids’ classrooms,” Grassmeyer said. “We’ve seen the spaces, and for the school board to make a sticking point of five kids per classroom just felt dishonest and didn’t feel like an honest effort of getting kids back in the classroom.”

Several members of the Open ACPS group have proposed solutions to the staffing and space constraints ACPS is facing.

“I think they can think of some more innovative or creative solutions,” Shea Westfall said. “For example, there’s probably a lot of aftercare workers right now who are not working who are furloughed who could qualify for a substitute teacher or a proctor.”

Dougherty emphasized that the group’s goal is not to antagonize ACPS, but to work with them.

“We feel incredibly invested in the community and the success of staff and teachers, parents and students,” Dougherty said. “We’re not here to oppose the school board, we’re here to work with them and offer our counsel as concerned citizens in the community.”