By Allison Hageman | [email protected]
After a full year of virtual learning, Alexandria City Public Schools plans to begin its phased reopening in March, ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. announced at the Feb. 4 school board meeting.
On March 2, students whose parents have opted for in-person learning in kindergarten through fifth grade who are receiving special education services along with English language learners are scheduled return to campus. The second group, students in grades six through 12 in specialized education and EL services, will transition on March 9. On March 16, all remaining students whose families have opted for hybrid learning are slated to return, Hutchings said.
“I keep telling our staff as well as our community, we are now ready. It is now time for this pivot to occur,” Hutchings said.
Previously, ACPS had planned to return the first group of students to some form of in-person learning by Jan. 19, with all students to return by Feb. 16. The initial re-opening date shifted to Feb. 2 later in January when Alexandria COVID-19 levels were increasing and the district changed to weekly reopening updates, instead of firm dates for a return to in-person learning.
Hutchings cited ACPS’ compliance with the Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, a decline in community health metrics and the ability to track staff willingness to return to the classroom as reasons to start reopening.
The decision to begin reopening in March also came as Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) wrote a letter to Virginia school superintendents saying they must offer in-person learning by March 15, “to prevent irreparable learning loss and psychological damage.”
At the school board meeting, Hutchings provided more details on ACPS’ six-week reopening plan.
Part of the six-week plan is for staff members to fill out a return-to-school form that was due Feb. 9. The form allows for staff to indicate if they cannot return due to medical status or personal factors. If teachers decide to return to school, they will be back in the classroom by March 1, Hutchings said.
Staff will be asked to indicate their vaccination status or decline indicating their status to the school district. By law, the district cannot require staff to disclose their vaccination status, but ACPS has the right to ask, Hutchings said.
“We hope that they will share that information because it will help us with some of our internal planning in regard to health and safety plans,” Hutchings said.
Vaccinations became available to ACPS staff beginning in January, since they are a part of the 1b category in Virginia’s vaccination roll-out. The Alexandria Health Department held an additional day designated for ACPS staff vaccination on Feb. 4.
According to Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, COVID-19 risk factors still remain a concern.
Alexandria is still in the highest risk category for the number of new cases per hundred thousand with- in the last 14 days and has moved into the moderate risk category for the number of positive tests in the last 14 days, according to Haering.
Alexandria has experienced fewer cases over the past seven days, compared to the previous seven days prior to that as of Feb. 4, Haering said. From Feb. 1 to 8, the seven-day moving average of daily COVID-19 cases decreased by 14.1 in the city, according to AHD.
“Things that the school can actually directly control, those are the things that have to do with physical distancing, correct and consistent use of masks, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection and collaboration with the local health department,” Haering said.
Pierrette Peters, principal at Francis C. Hammond MiddleSchool, said there are more than 70 action items that schools are taking into consideration in the weeks leading up to March. These include marking spaces for social distancing, organizing and distributing personal protective equipment and determining student groups for in-person and virtual learning.
“The ultimate goal of the checklist, in addition to guiding a safe reopening for students and staff, is to ensure that there is consistency among all ACPS schools in how we are planning for reopening,” Peters said.
The announcement of a planned March reopening comes as welcome news to the members of Open ACPS, a group of parents who formed at the end of October and have advocated for in-person learning. Hundreds of ACPS community members ACPS community members who have joined this effort have expressed frustration with the school board and ACPS administration over what they consider to be inaction and have voiced concerns about the impact of virtual learning on their children.
ACPS parent Amy Smith described the hybrid announcement as “welcomed” and said ACPS must continue to be transparent and provide real data. Smith said she submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for emails from ACPS staff about Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School’s socially distanced classroom layouts. The emails, she said, showed a discrepancy between the distance school board emails discussed and what was presented at the Oct. 15 school board meeting.
“When misinformation is purposefully given, it does more to drive a wedge in between community members and their elected officials,” Smith said.