By Allison Hageman | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools welcomed back its first group of students for in-person hybrid learning on Tuesday after almost a year of virtual learning. The returning students are kindergarten through fifth graders who are receiving special education services or are English language learners.
At Mount Vernon Community School, which has a large English Language student population and has been preparing for reopening all year, teachers, staff and students were excited to return to the classroom, Principal Liza Burrell-Aldana said.
“We just want to make sure that the kids feel that this is like the moment that we’ve been waiting for since March last year,” Burrell-Aldana said. “And we are just very happy to see the kids.”
From March to March
After COVID-19 reached Alexandria in early March 2020, ACPS closed its doors on March 16 and switched to a virtual learning model. Those doors are now reopening just a couple of weeks shy of one full year later.
Tuesday was not always the date ACPS had planned for its reopening. ACPS announced last fall that a partial return to the classroom would begin in January 2021. When COVID-19 levels spiked over the holidays and caseloads continued to climb in January, the reopening timetable was pushed back several times.
A combination of factors led to March 2 being the date when schools actually began reopening: a decline in COVID-19 levels in Alexandria, an increase in teacher vaccinations, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) ordering Virginia schools to reopen by March 15 and ACPS’ compliance with the Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
During the past year, residents asked repeatedly for more details about when and how the school district would transition to in-person education. Parents’ frustration peaked last October following a particularly contentious School Board meeting. Immediately afterward, a group of parents formed the Facebook group “Open ACPS” to pressure the School Board and administration to provide in-person learning as an option.
Concerns about equity and the achievement gap also fueled discontent with virtual-only learning. In January, data released by ACPS’ Department of Accountability and Research showed that vulnerable student groups such as minority and special program students at the secondary level were falling behind at higher rates under virtual-only learning.
In mid-February, Mount Vernon Community School students and teachers celebrated 100 days of Virtual PLUS+ learning, according to the school’s Facebook page. Posts after this announcement show the school preparing students for their return to school with webinars, behind-the-scenes looks at classrooms and a post telling them what to bring to school: a mask, tablet or Chromebook, charger, water bottle, headphones and learning packet.
“We are excited to welcome our first group of hybrid students into our building,” the post read in both English and Spanish.
Students also expressed enthusiasm about returning to their classrooms.
“I am really excited to go back to the building with my friends and meet my teachers in person,” Luis Armando Aleman Campos, 9, a Mount Vernon fourth grader, said via email. “I know we are going through a hard time right now but we love our school and our teachers.”
On Tuesday, Mount Vernon welcomed about 120 students back for the first day of hybrid learning, Burrell-Aldana said. The school would normally have about 900 students and 117 staff members. About 60% of staff are returning in-person, according to Burrell-Aldana.
Students coming back to school will have a schedule that remains similar to virtual learning and will start at 8 a.m., Burrell-Aldana said. During hybrid learning, students will get dropped off by parents or come off the bus and be greeted by teachers in the auditorium, cafeteria or gym to be guided to their classrooms.
In the classrooms, students’ desks will be spaced six-feet apart, have clear plastic shields and personal supplies for the students.
“We’re making sure that they keep the normalcy that they’ve had this year in terms of instruction,” Burrell-Aldana said.
According to ACPS’ “Back to school guide for hybrid learning,” the classroom schedules for hybrid learning will be in-person Tuesday and Wednesday or Thursday and Friday, while Monday will remain asynchronous.
School services offered to students will include free breakfast and lunch, to be consumed in the classroom; bus transportation, with limited space due to social-distancing constraints, for eligible students; and additional school supplies provided as needed.
ACPS parent Jennie Ritt has two children in first and third grade who will return to hybrid learning, March 18 at James K. Polk Elementary School as part of Group B. During the pandemic, her children have attended The Campagna Center at Patrick Henry Elementary. She said she was initially excited at the news of schools reopening until she went to the last PTA meeting.
At the PTA meeting, Ritt said they described recess as students in a field, lined up six-feet apart and walking around the school. It sounded like “child prison,” Ritt said. Other restrictions mentioned, according to Ritt, were that students can’t use water fountains, go to the bathroom together or get up from their desks.
On the first day of hybrid learning, her children experienced new guidelines at The Campagna Center, including no longer being allowed to play on the playground equipment. She said this is upsetting to her and her kids because they have been attending the program “successfully” since last June and using the playground.
“There has to be a better way,” Ritt said.
The Alexandria PTA Council was contacted for comment on the reopening of ACPS but did not respond in time for publication.
Each morning before in-person school, parents must complete a daily symptom checklist which asks health screening questions such as if a student has a temperature over 100 degrees. In school, students are required to wear masks, except when eating, and maintain a six- foot distance from others.
Ritt said she thinks this is asking too much of parents, as it adds another step in an aleady hectic morning process.
Though when asked about social distancing and wearing a mask, Mount Vernon fourth grader Madison Andrade Diaz, 9, said in an email that wearing a mask makes her feel great.
“The mask protects me from COVID-19. There’s no problem for me wearing a mask,” Diaz said. “But it’s hard to have the mask all the time, but it’s safe to not spread the virus. About the distance, I have to get used to being away from my teachers and friends.”
The transition to hybrid learning brings with it a new staff position: the classroom monitor. Those who serve as classroom monitors will be the in-person presence for teachers who are not able to be in the classroom.
A recent ACPS job posting said the classroom monitor role “ensures the students (up to eight students) stay engaged in their learning; laptops and classroom instruction will be followed per the instruction of the on-line teacher (using Zoom video-conference technology).”
Mount Vernon will have 12 classroom monitors who were recently trained, according to Burrell-Aldana. In the case of Mount Vernon, since many staff members are returning to the classroom, the monitors will work with a teacher who may be in another room, collaborating with the teacher on supervising students, Burrell-Aldana said.
When asked about classroom monitors, Ritt, who recently applied to be a monitor, said she wondered how they would be able to assist students in need. On Tuesday, her children were told that both of their teachers are coming back to school for hybrid learning, and as a result will not have classroom monitors.
“[There are] no classroom monitors for either of our kids and that is definitely a good feeling and another reason we love and appreciate our amazing teachers,” Ritt said via email.
Some parents from the OpenACPS group questioned the role of classroom monitors on their Facebook page.
One parent wrote that they specifically asked at a re-entry meeting if monitors could help a child struggling with an assignment.
“The reply was point blank-No,” the parent wrote on the OpenACPS Facebook page. “They are paying people to stand there and NOT help kids.”
“The principal told everyone that the monitors are ‘not trained’ to assist students,” another parent wrote.
The ACPS website states that classroom monitors are not teachers or substitute teachers. According to ACPS, the responsibilities of classroom monitors are limited to ensuring students remain attentive on their laptops and providing some help to students under the direction of the online classroom teacher.
In the same post, ACPS indicated that monitors in special needs classrooms will be hired using specialty agencies. The monitors will receive two days of focused training specifically for special needs classrooms. They will “be under guidance from the classroom’s trained professional.”
The next group of students will return to school for hybrid learning on March 9, specifically grades six through 12 in special education and EL services. The remaining students whose families have opted for hybrid learning are slated to return on March 16.
By the end of March, Mount Vernon is expecting 420 students to return to classrooms, Burrell-Aldana said. While staff and students are excited to be back in the classroom, Burrell-Aldana warned that school is not going to look the way it used to for a while.
“It’s about adjustment and it’s about communication, making sure that the kids know that we’re still a school and we’re still a community and we are still here for them, and that this is the first step,” Burrell-Aldana said.
Despite her concerns with various facets of the reopening, Ritt said getting her kids back in school now is an important step toward returning to full time, in-person learning in the fall.
On the first day of re-opening, Ritt said she could see the positive side. For the first time in almost a year, she saw her local neighborhood crossing guards back on their corners, parents walking their children to school, school buses with kids on board and teachers excitedly cheering to welcome back students.
“I want my kids back in school. I want every kid back in school,” Ritt said. “And I feel like at this point, coronavirus isn’t going anywhere.”