By Allison Hageman | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed. D provided an update on reopening schools and announced a new in-person learning program called SEAL Support Mondays during the Jan. 21 virtual Alexandria School Board meeting. The meeting was marked by considerable push-back from several parents frustrated by continued virtual-only learning.
The first students slated to return for part-time in-person learning are the youngest students with disabilities. These pupils were supposed to return to school on. Jan. 19. However, that date has already been pushed back three times.
According to the ACPS website, which was updated on Monday, learning will remain virtual-only the week of Feb. 1, meaning the earliest possible return to in-person learning for this first group is the week of Feb. 8.
At the school board meeting, ACPS staff went over its decision matrix for a hybrid phased reopening and how it had been impacted by the increase in new COVID-19 cases in Alexandria and strained staffing levels.
According to Dr. Stephen Haering, the director of the Alexandria Health Department, Alexandria is in the highest risk category for one of the core public health indicators, which is based on the number of new cases per hundred thousand within the last 14 days. On Jan. 7, Alexandria reported 71 cases for that day, another 80 daily cases on Jan. 14 and 58 daily cases on Jan. 21, according to data from the Alexandria Health Department.
At the meeting, Hutchings also discussed new interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health on reopening K-12 schools. Although it is similar to ACPS’ existing reopening decision matrix, the district will make some changes to its reopening approach based on the new guidance.
This includes slight percentage changes for the moderate risk and high risk of community transmission and for the COVID-19 PRC test positivity percentages as a 14-day average. The second change was the approach to monitoring absenteeism based on illness, which means ACPS will have to track students and staff missing school based on illness once the doors are open, Hutchings said.
Strained staffing levels, especially among teachers, have also affected ACPS’ reopening, according to Hutchings. ACPS is currently only able to have 50% to 75% of its staff in buildings, while, normally, there would be 75% to 100%. The “strained level” is currently based on facility operation, teaching, administration and transportation staff who have decided they are willing and able to be at school in-person. The “normal level” percentage reflects the staffing levels needed for ACPS to operate efficiently once open in person, according to Hutchings. Hutchings hopes with ACPS teachers being eligible for vaccines that this will change.
“What we are hoping to see as our staff are receiving their vaccines [is] that we should go from a strained level to a normal level over time,” Hutchings said.
School board member Jacinta Greene asked about the percentage of teachers who have been vaccinated so far. Hutchings said they are tracking who has been vaccinated, but they are still trying to figure out a way to track who among their staff has been vaccinated without compromising their medical information. Hutchings did not clarify why sharing vaccination rates would involve sharing personal medical information.
Similarly, school board member Michelle Rief inquired about the staffing capacity, how ACPS is gathering data for staff to return and how it would impact individual schools.
“Would we be in a situation where some schools would be able to come back, maybe before other schools based on the staffing capacity?” Rief asked.
Once schools open, it would be possible that a disparity could occur if one school has an outbreak while another does not, Hutchings said. Once the district opens, ACPS could shift from division-wide decisions to school-by-school decisions, according to Hutchings.
Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan said that she was concerned about the week-to-week decision timeframe. She expressed a concern that it will impact the community’s trust, and it might be better to share a specific reopening date and give the ACPS a week or two to prepare.
“I just keep worrying, I think I mentioned this last time, that this is perhaps not enough time for both families, the community partners, staff, your team, to have to adjust and pivot that quickly,” Nolan said.
Hutchings stated that his team has been discussing this and the Virginia Department of Health guidance is to forcast two to four weeks for changes.
Several parents spoke up, voicing their frustrations. ACPS parent Jennifer Niccolls was critical of last minute changes to the school calendar, including the recent change to asynchronous learning on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. Niccolls asked that ACPS share the summer school schedule and hire more school staff. She added that her daughter only appears to learn when she is working with a teacher in a small group.
“Live teaching should not stop during important events, it should include them, especially when our kids are in school just four days a week with live instruction,” Niccolls said.
Another ACPS parent, Gina Baum, said it would be a “travesty” for someone to vaccinate teachers and not have an intention to reopen schools. In her comments at the meeting, Baum advocated for families to be able to choose in-person learning and said she was “sick” of school board members not liking the comparison of ACPS to private schools.
“A desk space three feet apart in a private school is no different than a desk space three feet apart in a public school,” Baum said.
Heather Rosner, a band teacher at George Mason Elementary School, wrote a letter favoring virtual instruction for music students learning instruments. In-person restrictions on hands-on learning for an instrument require a distance of 20 to 30 feet, and make it hard to teach proper hand and mouth positions, according to Rosner.
“While wearing a mask, the instructor will not be able to model position of lips, tongue, and teeth, which is essential to playing,” Rosner wrote in a letter to the School Board.
Hutchings proposed one new temporary solution for those looking for in-person learning opportunities. The SEAL Support Mondays pro- gram will provide in-person support for students K-12 not responding to virtual help. SEAL, or social, emotional, academic learning, is already given to students virtually, Hutchings said.
School board member Ramee Gentry was positive about the new program but thinks it needs further clarification, particularly if students will be assigned to their specific school.
“I think that’s going to be a really welcome support,” Gentry said. “That a lot of families will appreciate.”
The details of this new program and its specific start date are still being finalized and more details will be announced in upcoming weeks, Hutchings said. As of now, students will be selected for the program based on ACPS data, SEAL assessments and teacher observation.