Our View: Good news, bad news

Our View: Good news, bad news

Maybe 2021 really is going to be better than 2020. Last year, it seemed like bad news was all we had. This year, despite last week’s tragedy at the Capitol, there are more glimmers of hope – most notably the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The front page of this week’s Alexandria Times captures the good and bad in three stories: one on the D.C. riot as experienced by Alexandria natives Henry Rodgers and Sam Cloud, another on the excitement as the COVID-19 vaccine arrived at T.C. Williams High School and the third on the sharp drop in grades for Alexandria City Public Schools’ secondary students since the advent of virtual learning.

The bad news for ACPS is pretty bad, as academic performance declined across all major demographic groups, sometimes dramatically, from the first quarter of the 2019-20 school year to the first quarter of 2020-21.

The increase in D’s and F’s earned at the middle school level by Hispanic and Black students and by students with disabilities was particularly concerning, as it exacerbated an already troubling achievement gap within the school system.

Blame for this decline in academic performance rests squarely with the decision made by Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. and the Alexandria School Board to forego a hybrid model of learning that would have brought students into the classroom on at least a part-time basis this past fall.

While there’s currently a significant surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide, including in Alexandria, case levels were much lower and holding steady at the start of this school year. According to the Virginia Department of Health website, the current seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases in Alexandria as of Jan. 12 is 94.6. Yet on Sept. 1, 2020, as the school year was getting underway, it was 12.3.

Case levels didn’t start climbing toward current levels until mid-November, after the end of the 2020-21 school year’s first quarter. It bears repeating that all of Alexandria’s private schools offered at least limited in-person learning during the fall.

Additionally, Alexandria’s neighboring public school districts in Fairfax and Arlington counties brought vastly more students back into classrooms than the six ACPS special needs students who received three weeks of part-time, in-class instruction in fall 2020.

That said, Tuesday was a joyful day for ACPS, as administrators and teachers received the first doses of the Moderna vaccine. Hutchings led the charge by being the first at ACPS to be vaccinated. The superintendent told those gathered, including Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was on hand for the ACPS vaccine rollout, “My job is to lead by example, and I can’t wait to get my vaccine today.”

The vaccine rollout is crucial to the effort to get students back into classrooms, where they learn best. We hope every ACPS staff member and especially teachers, except for those who shouldn’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, receive the vaccine in short order, so that students can return to classrooms.

The sobering grades of ACPS students from the first quarter of this school year should have sounded the alarm for everyone involved in education in this city – from City Council to the School Board to ACPS staff to parents and residents without school aged children.

Children learn best in classrooms with teachers physically present. The vaccine is our best hope to make that happen. Hopefully the return-to-classrooms timeframe will be measured in weeks, not months.