Our View: Back to the classroom

Our View: Back to the classroom

A perceived lack of progress by Alexandria City Public Schools on returning students to classrooms is frustrating an increasing number of parents in the city. We think they have a right to be concerned and applaud their grassroots activism.

Our page 1 story, “Parent activists push for ACPS reopening,” explains the genesis of the Open ACPS group that has sprung up on Facebook, and chronicles how their efforts have gained the attention of ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D, who met with leaders from the group on Tuesday. Hutchings said he intends to involve parents from the group in planning to reopen schools.

ACPS is lagging behind not only Alexandria’s private schools but also other Northern Virginia school jurisdictions in reopening for in-person learning. And the elephant in the room, which Hutchings acknowledged in an interview on Wednesday, is the reluctance of ACPS teachers to return to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandria’s private schools seem to be making a hybrid learning model of in-person and virtual learning work. But then, private schools don’t have a guaranteed flow of funding for teachers, staff and building maintenance the way public institutions do. Many parents would refuse to pay private-school tuition for remote learning, leaving these schools with little recourse but to find ways to reopen.

More troubling is the fact that ACPS is lagging behind neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Arlington and Fairfax counties, both of which educate far more students than Alexandria.

Fairfax County Public Schools educates a whopping 187,000 children, more than 10 times the number of students in ACPS. There are massive logistical challenges to teaching a block of children larger than the City of Alexandria’s total population in actual classrooms during a pandemic.

Yet by next week, all of FCPS pre-k and kindergarten students are scheduled to have resumed partial in-person learning, according to the FCPS website. All Fairfax County students are currently slated to return to the classroom part-time by the end of January.

This is because FCPS has required their teachers to return to work, resign or take a leave of absence, according to a WTOP report. In other words, to continue receiving their taxpayer-funded salaries, Fairfax County teachers have to return to the classroom and teach in person.

Isn’t it reasonable to ask Alexandria’s teachers to do the same?

An initial ACPS survey conducted in late September revealed that only about 23% of staff were very likely to return, followed by 33% somewhat likely, 21% somewhat unlikely and 23% very unlikely. Another factor complicating a safe return to the classroom is the chronic overcrowding of ACPS facilities even during non-pandemic times.

The lag by ACPS in returning to in-person instruction raises numerous questions, including:

• Why is a follow-up survey on teacher willingness to return to classrooms just now being conducted?

• Does ACPS intend to let teachers prevent a return to the classroom for the entire 2020-21 school year for all but a fraction of students?

• Are teams of ACPS administrators, teachers and parents currently observing FCPS and incorporating their best practices into ACPS’ planning? Why reinvent the wheel if a workable model exists next door?

Yes, resuming in-person instruction will require a major pivot for the entire school division. And, yes, Fairfax County didn’t do virtual learning as well as ACPS last spring, which may have informed their more aggressive approach to returning to classrooms.

ACPS is doing a lot of things right, such as continuing to feed children across the city who need meals, providing wifi hot spots and Chromebooks to students and doing a better job of providing virtual instruction than many locales.

But Alexandria’s parents are increasingly saying virtual learning isn’t working for their children. This begs the most difficult question of all: Do our schools exist more for students or teachers?