By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. updated the Alexandria School Board about the district’s reopening plans during a virtual school board meeting on Dec. 17.
ACPS’ transition to in-person education will maintain the previous board-approved phased-in approach. Students with disabilities in kindergarten through second grade whose families have opted for in-person learning will return to classrooms starting Jan. 19. From there, schools will open up to more students through January and February until all students who have opted to return on Feb. 16.
On Nov. 23, Hutchings recommended, and the school board unanimously approved, delaying the school district’s phased-in reopening plans to January based on state-wide restrictions that went into effect on Nov. 16 and the recommendations of local and state health officials. The decision reversed course on a previously approved plan which had already brought six students back for in-person learning on Nov. 5 and which would have brought another 100 students back on Nov. 30.
At the meeting on Dec. 17, Hutchings remained committed to his choice to delay the reopening, citing concerns in late November around a potential spike in COVID-19 cases that has since occurred throughout the country.
“I’m grateful for that insight and I’m glad that we reacted to that because we actually did see a spike the week after we got back from our Thanksgiving break and we’re continuing to see it right now,” Hutchings said.
ACPS’ revised reopening plan largely maintains the structure of the previous reopening plan just with different dates. Students whose families have opted for in-person education will still return to classrooms in phases based on priority.
Given the time needed for teachers and administrators to set up their classrooms and offices, ACPS staff will have access to school facilities starting on Jan. 11. That time will also be used to run professional development and teach staff about the district’s new hybrid education model.
Over winter break, staff will set up classrooms and space desks so that teachers will not have to do it themselves when they return in January, according to Hutchings.
After students with disabilities in kindergarten through second grade return on Jan. 19, in-person learning will expand to students with disabilities in grades three through five and English learners in kindergarten through fifth grade.
On Feb. 2, the remaining students with disabilities and English learners in grades six through 12 will return to the classroom. All students in PreK through fifth grade will return on Feb. 9, followed by all remaining students in grades six through 12 on Feb. 16.
This phased approach provides several advantages, according to Hutchings.
“It will … allow us to get some lessons learning along the way with smaller groups as we grow into these larger groups and get routines and things in place,” Hutchings said. “It also allows us to follow the prioritization structure that we set up this past summer where we focused on our students with special needs, then our English learners and our early learners, then we move into our secondary learners.”
The new reopening plan is based on a concurrent teaching model that allows teachers to stay with their students whether they, or their students, are attending school in person or virtually. In this concurrent model, teachers will be able to provide instruction simultaneously to students who are in person or at home on a screen.
Classes will be divided into three cohorts. Students whose families have opted for in-person learning will make up two of those groups and will engage in two alternating days of in-person education. One group will be in the classroom on Tuesday and Wednesday and virtual on Thursday and Friday, while the other group will have the reverse schedule. The third group of students will be those whose families opted to remain virtual.
Mondays will still be planning and professional development days for teachers and remain virtual for all students.
This allows ACPS to maintain the class schedule it already has in the entirely online Virtual PLUS+ model.
“We can actually implement to the virtual schedule that we currently have in place that all of our students are currently accustomed to,” Hutchings said. “And we can also modify it so that we’re not setting up a situation where our staff have to create a lesson for an in-person schedule and a lesson for a virtual schedule.”
Hutchings and ACPS presented this information with the caveat that the reopening is contingent on staffing, building capacity and community health metrics and that if schools do reopen in January, education will look very different.
“I’m not saying that to make an excuse. I’m not saying that to deter people from wanting to come back into our schools,” Hutchings said. “I’m saying that to give a reality check.”
Classrooms and facilities will be set up to allow for six-foot social distancing. As an example, Alicia Hart, executive director of facilities and operations, said George Mason Elementary School classrooms will be able to fit seven students and George Washington Middle School labs will be able to fit six students. Facemasks will also be required for all staff and students and daily enhanced cleaning will be implement- ed in offices, classrooms and common areas, Hart said.
Some parents, community members and teachers remain critical of ACPS’ decision to delay the reopening, citing a perceived lack of urgency on the part of the superintendent and school board.
“I’m very disappointed that ACPS has moved so slowly to return students to in-person learning,” Jennifer Niccolls, an ACPS parent, said at the Dec. 17 meeting. “Students are losing so much learning this year, it’s heartbreaking.”
For parents whose children have not adapted to virtual learning, this semester has been difficult.
ACPS parent Hakan Ozsancak said he feels his fifth-grade daughter, who is in the special needs program, has been “failed by ACPS.” Kirsi Chavez said her 9-year-old daughter has expressed suicidal thoughts and anxiety due to this prolonged period of virtual learning.
“My daughter has fear of being home. I have fear for my daughter being home, that she’s going to kill herself,” Chavez said. “If teachers have fear, they can take an anxiety pill, but I can’t give an anxiety pill to a 9-year-old, make her take antidepressants and so forth. She needs to be in school.”
School Board member Ramee Gentry said she had a “visceral” and “emotional” reaction to several comments from parents that criticized ACPS staff for their lack of planning during the pandemic.
“To suggest that the staff doesn’t care about in-person learning for the kids or that they’re pushing this aside, it’s really untrue and it’s hurtful for me to hear it,” Gentry said.
Gentry urged parents that have been supportive of teachers to extend that level of support to ACPS staff and its approach to the reopening.
“I want you to understand that when you are praising these teachers and respecting their work, the teachers are also praising the approach ACPS has been taking,” Gentry continued. “… If you respect our teachers and if you want to keep our teachers, I hope you will continue to support the plan that ACPS is laying out.”
Gentry’s comments ignited an intense reaction on social media from members of Open ACPS, a group of nearly 700 parents, teachers and community members who are advocating for a return to in-person learning.
Several parents and community members also said they believe ACPS has been vague about the health metrics guiding its decisions around the reopening.
“We need our public health, education and city leaders to show us the pathway forward to make sure our children, and the children who need it most, can get back to school,” Kirsten Dougherty, parent and member of Open ACPS, said.
In the staff presentation, Hutchings clarified that ACPS has been using, and continues to use, specific community health and school-related metrics for when the district can reopen safely.
“I don’t want people to think we’re now reinventing something or we’re now just creating metrics,” Hutchings said. “We’ve been making decisions based off of metrics all along. That’s not something that is foreign or new to us.”
ACPS staff have been operating off of a series of core and secondary indicators that were set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist schools in making their reopening plans.
Core indicators include the total number of new cases per 100,000 people within the last 14 days, the percentage of positive tests in the last 14 days and the ability of schools to implement mitigation strategies. Secondary indicators include the percent change of cases per 100,000 people during the last seven days and hospital bed occupancy in the region.
The school district makes its decisions based on how the city is performing in these categories, ranging from lowest risk to highest risk. Currently, Alexandria sits at high or highest risk for two of the core indicators, according to Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department.
“We’re telling people, ‘Stay at home.’ We’re talking about all the other things, but we are not in a good situation right now and we’re imploring and really begging people to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary to go out,” Haering said.
Health officials are also still evaluating the impact of two COVID-19 vaccines that have been made available to frontline medical workers in recent weeks. Haering said he anticipates teachers and school staff will be at the top of the priority list in the next phase of vaccinations, alongside police, fire and other essential infrastructure staff, which could be a promising sign for the school district’s plans.