ACPS pushes back in-person learning to January

ACPS pushes back in-person learning to January
The Slack children — from left, Riker (10), Adella (6) and Sebastian (8) — learning remotely in spring 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

By Lindsey Sullivan |

On Nov. 23, the school board unanimously voted to “pause” all in-person learning in Alexandria City Public Schools until January, backpedaling on previous re-entry plans.

The six students in the city-wide program who had returned to in-person learning on Nov 5 and the roughly 100 students who were scheduled to return to in-person learning on Nov. 30 will now continue to be online.

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., made the recommendation to the school board following state-wide restrictions that went into effect on Nov. 16 that limit gatherings from 250 to 25 people. He said the decision was informed by conversations with the Alexandria Health Department about concerns over heightened risk of infection due to increased travel throughout the holiday season.

This decision is in direct contrast with the board’s previously approved motion to pursue a return to in-person learning for all students K-12 through a phased-in approach, beginning with students with disabilities and English learners.

“We are not the only people in this pandemic — in Alexandria — everybody is dealing with this, not just in the United States of America, but all over the world,” Hutchings said at the meeting. “And if we’re not following the news and we’re not using data to make some informed decisions, then we’re doing a disservice to our children. I want to just make sure that I will never be impulsive, especially when it comes to decisions like this.”

The previously approved school board decision factored in “capacity” as its main contingency for a return to in-person learning. This new decision includes “health metrics” as part of its contingency as well.

The metrics Hutchings and his team currently use to measure a safe return to in-person learning include the number of new cases that are in the community per 100,000 persons within the 14 days prior, the total percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the 14 days prior and internal school risk assessments, being the degree of implementation of measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing within the school buildings.

Leading up to his recommendation for a pause on in-person learning, Hutchings said the city’s health department reported more than 200 cases per 100,000 in the community and more than 10% of positive tests over the last 14 days, placing Alexandria in the “highest risk” category for transmission within schools.

Hutchings emphasized throughout the meeting the importance of protecting not only Alexandria’s students, but its faculty and staff as well.

But some school board members continued to express concerns about the learning losses that all students, especially those with special education needs and K-2 learners, are experiencing.

“What I would hate to have happen is the board to say, ‘Stop everything now,’ and then lose the opportunity to educate some of the students, [because] we’re doing it in a very incremental, thoughtful, only-a-handful-of-students-way,” board member Christopher Suarez said.

Hutchings said he understands the frustration many community members are facing over the decisions that he and the school board have made and promised to provide as much transparency related to decision-making as possible.

“It’s not saying that I don’t want to do anything about it because we’re working toward it every day,” Hutchings said. “But I can’t make the global pandemic go away — that’s one thing I don’t have control over.”