By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Alexandria City Public Schools will move from six feet to three feet of physical distancing in classrooms on April 26, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. said at a School Board meeting on Tuesday.
Hutchings’ announcement comes after the Alexandria School Board voted unanimously at its April 8 meeting to promptly shift toward three feet of physical distancing in classrooms “to the greatest extent possible,” going against Hutchings’ recommendation.
The decision brings ACPS in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s revised recommendation for distancing in schools, which was released in March. This change, which will involve strategy meetings in the coming weeks, is set to run at least through the end of the 2020- 2021 school year.
The discussion at the April 8 meeting highlighted a sharp divide in vision between the School Board and the ACPS leadership team.
Board members expressed dismay and frustration with an ACPS newsletter that addressed distancing and went out earlier in the week without their input or approval. In the newsletter, ACPS stated that distancing would remain at six feet for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
According to School Board member Ramee Gentry, on the evening of April 7 the ACPS website read, “At this time, ACPS is maintaining six feet of physical distancing throughout the remainder of the school year.”
Though the statement had been deleted by the next day, Gentry called it “very, very surprising” and “completely counter” to the CDC guidelines.
“In my five plus years on the School Board this is probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been,” Gentry said during the meeting. “I feel there has been a real disconnect in the communications and a real breakdown in the process.”
Gentry asserted that the newsletter did not convey the board’s previously stated desire to act in accordance with the CDC recommendations. The CDC now recommends three-foot distancing in areas of low, moderate or substantial community transmission.
Six-foot distancing, as ACPS has been operating with since reopening in a hybrid model, is recommended in areas of high transmission or when masks can’t be worn, such as when eating, during activities when increased exhalation occurs like singing or sports, in common areas like lobbies or auditoriums, and between teachers and staff.
“There is nothing here that prevents us from going to three feet,” Gentry said at the meeting, emphasizing that every single ACPS staff member had the opportunity to be vaccinated. “When I see all of these different things, I am truly bewildered that a communication would have gone out saying six feet of physical distancing throughout the remainder of the school year.”
In response, Hutchings said that ACPS staff have been working to determine a way to transition to three-foot physical distancing since the CDC released its new guidance on March 19. According to Hutchings, staff had a “celebratory discussion” upon hearing news of the reduced distancing guidelines.
“We are committed to bringing back as many students as we can. Three feet is going to allow us to do that,” Hutchings said.
Since ACPS began its transition to hybrid learning in March, about 5,000 students have returned to the classroom. Hutchings has said that ACPS plans on moving to four days of in-person summer instruction and a full, five-day reopening in the fall.
School Board member Christopher Suarez echoed Gentry’s shock at the ACPS statement and said his concern with ACPS’ strategy goes back further, to the decision to return to all-virtual learning for the week after spring break.
“My concerns started when the announcement was made right before spring break that we were going to extend virtual [learning] an extra week after the break and there was no discussion with the board about that,” Suarez said. “To come back from spring break and see this announcement and, frankly, be blindsided by it, it was very concerning from a procedural standpoint.”
During public comment, parent Erika Melman expressed frustration with the ACPS announcement to maintain six feet of distancing and two days of in-person learning.
“When I read the email, I was furious as I thought about how much my second grade ACPS student has suffered and struggled with virtual learning,” Melman said.
She went on to criticize Hutchings’ use of the word “impossible” when describing the difficulties behind operating schools at more than limited capacity.
“My ask tonight is that ACPS pivot away from the impossible mindset and make a plan to improve the status quo now,” Melman said. For Melman, that meant immediately reducing the spacing to three feet and moving all hybrid students to four days of in-person learning per week.
Others were less keen on the physical distancing reduction and more concerned with the quality of air, with many incensed residents expressing reservations about the new guidelines and calling for daily recording of the air quality in the classrooms.
ACPS parent and COVID-19 clinical research nurse Maureen McNulty called ACPS’ approach toward approving ventilation in buildings “unaggressive” and said it poses a risk to unvaccinated students and staff.
She pointed out that ACPS is using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ventilation filters even though George Washington Middle School, for instance, is more than 75 years old and likely presents a different ventilation risk profile than other buildings. “Since ACPS is not providing air quality data in each building and giving the history and realities of our aging facilities, we can only surmise that many of our 1,300 classrooms are at risk for poor ventilation and viral transmission,” McNulty said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand on this issue. The risk is too high.”
She called for the School Board to request data from ACPS on air quality and exchanges in buildings, as well as hire an air quality specialist to perform an assessment of the most at-risk school buildings if that data is not available.
School Board member Margaret Lorber said that the district is “going to great lengths” to maintain safety precautions – some schools have placed HEPA air purifiers in areas the current HVAC system can’t easily access, for instance – but that there is ample room to increase transparency with community members about future plans as well as what is already in place.
Several parents suggested that the schools aren’t prepared yet to move to three feet of distancing, but Lorber argued that a public dashboard to widen the channels of communication would alleviate some of these worries.
“I feel that there’s more going on in terms of [monitoring] air quality than the public realizes,” Lorber said. “Many who are not ready to send their children back to school would feel much more ready if they knew that we are monitoring on a daily basis – which I believe we are doing, but we have not made that clear.”
School Board member Michelle Rief made a motion to reduce ACPS’ physical distancing in classrooms to three feet for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. The motion was approved unanimously, 9-0.
Hutchings told the Alexandria Times that staff is preparing to transition these additional students beginning on April 20. The district plans to bring 3,000 more students into hybrid learning in the coming weeks, a task he called “significant.”
“Our plans are well underway to transition more students into the classroom with this additional capacity,” Hutchings told the Times in a statement. Hutchings did not directly respond to a request for comment about why the announcement to remain at six feet went out in the ACPS Express newsletter last week.
Members of Open ACPS, a Facebook group composed of more than 800 parents and ACPS community members, expressed support for the School Board’s decision and criticized Hutchings’ leadership. “We applaud our Alexandria School Board elected leadership for finally speaking up regarding [Hutchings’] lack of transparency and unwillingness to follow CDC recommendations,” Open ACPS said in a statement. “… In addition, OPEN ACPS urges the Board to continue holding the Superintendent accountable as ACPS moves to adopt the 3 feet distancing metric. We hope that this will not be another opportunity for Dr. Hutchings to use meetings, committees, and ‘buy in’ as a means to delay policy changes that he cannot or will not enact.”
Ultimately, Gentry maintained that the district needs to follow the CDC guidelines and do whatever it takes to get to three feet in order to reach five in-person days by fall, as the board initially planned.
“I appreciated the opportunity for us to discuss this topic at our last meeting, and I look forward to learning more this week from Dr. Hutchings and the rest of the ACPS team as we all move forward together by continuing our adherence to CDC guidelines for schools and use their revised guidance recommending three feet of distance to bring more students back to in-person learning,” Gentry said in an interview.