Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D.: Reopening depends on health metrics

Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D.: Reopening depends on health metrics
Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

When we closed our school buildings on March 13, it was inconceivable to think that we would still find ourselves in a virtual learning setting nine months later. 

One of the things I miss the most as a superintendent is the daily interactions that I had with our students and staff in the classroom. Over these past months, I have reflected on my fond memories of meeting with our students and the inspiration they gave me daily to be a better educator.

It has helped me to better understand the struggles that students and staff are grappling with after all these months. It keeps me focused on working closely with our team to address our constraints and think creatively to successfully transition our students and staff into our school buildings.  

Despite our efforts to reopen our school buildings to our most vulnerable learners in November, the community health metrics left us in a situation where community transmission and infection rates are too high to be able to provide the safety of our staff and students – even with the strictest health and safety precautions and measures in place. 

The one thing that these community health metrics do not alter, however, is the work and planning that continues daily by our dedicated and talented senior leadership team, school and central office administrators, staff, support staff, students, PTA members and community members to refine our transition plans including hybrid teaching and learning models such as concurrent teaching and to hear from the Alexandria Health Department – our partners throughout this process

Our adjusted timeline to transition students will begin in mid-January with all students able to return back in our buildings by mid-February. This, of course, is dependent on our community health metrics. 

The transition to reopen our school buildings is detailed and highly complex and it means that when the community health metrics are at improved risk levels, we will be ready to pivot and safely transition our students into our school buildings. 

As one of the largest employers in Alexandria, we value and respect our staff as partners in our work to ensure every student across Alexandria has the opportunity to thrive and succeed. As an employer, ACPS has a duty to ensure our staff have a safe workplace under the guidelines of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration as well as the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Emergency Temporary Standard. We will do all we can to ensure our schools and offices are safe in this pandemic. 

To help us with this transition, we now have a clearer picture about each ACPS staff member through our 100% completion of the “Staff Intent to Return Form.” Last week, we launched a “Family Choice Form,” due Dec. 11, to gather similar data for every student and their families where families can choose whether they would return under a two-day-a-week hybrid model or prefer to remain virtual.

We are hearing that many of our teachers, students and their families have adjusted to the Virtual PLUS+ learning model and that a mid-year change could disrupt what has become our new normal. Conversely, we are also hearing that many have not adjusted and would like to return to our school buildings immediately.

While we know that in-person learning is best for most children, we also know that constant changes to routines and remaining home for some causes stress – a condition that makes it difficult for any adult or child to learn. 

In addition, while we will do our best to keep students with their current teachers, there may be situations when this is not possible under a hybrid model. 

This is not a situation any of us wished for and we ask you to be mindful of travel and large gatherings over the holidays so that we can all do our part to reduce COVID-19 community transmission and infection rates.

It will take each of us doing our part to bring these rates down to a safe level so that we can reopen our schools. I remain hopeful that we will be back in our school buildings very soon to teach, learn and grow together.

The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.