By Olivia Anderson | firstname.lastname@example.org
The sun was out in full force on Monday, as were about 100 Alexandria parents and students with handmade signs and sidewalk chalk in tow.
Congregating outside the Alexandria City Public Schools Central Office for what they called the ACPS Deserves Better, Our Kids Deserve Better rally, protestors demanded ACPS expand its level of in-person instruction. ACPS is currently operating on a hybrid schedule, with two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction per week.
The protest, which coincided with a joint meeting of the School Board and City Council, consisted of community members taking turns sharing reasons why they believe the district’s schools must reopen to five days of in-person learning per week.
“For too long, parents in this community have gotten used to the crumbs they’ve been thrown by [Superintendent] Dr. Hutchings and by the School Board, and they’ve allowed themselves to be accustomed to being treated poorly, frankly. We’re not being served by the school board, and we’re not being served by this administration,” parent Kirsten Dougherty told the Times.
Dougherty was an organizer of the rally and moderator of the Open ACPS! Facebook group through which it was conceived. Dougherty said that the group’s need has grown increasingly apparent as ACPS continues to “make excuses” for its delayed transition back to four or five days of in-person instruction.
Alexandria’s commitment to two days a week in person is exacerbated by the fact that neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax County and Falls Church have already returned to four and five days of in-person instruction, respectively. Neighboring Arlington Public Schools also remain at two days of in-person instruction.
Although ACPS will soon transition to four days per week of in-person instruction for students with special needs, four days for summer instruction and five days come fall, Dougherty said this change is not rapid enough.
“Over and over we’ve been told that it’s too hard, and we’re here to say that we’ve seen kids and parents operate under really hard circumstances for the last year,” Dougherty said in an interview. “We just feel like there needs to be some level of accountability to those who are making decisions that affect all of Alexandria.”
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. said at the joint meeting that staff has opted to adhere to two days a week for the remainder of the year, with SEAL support students “at the top of the list” of who staff has prioritized getting back into the building this spring.
There will be a Cohort A and a Cohort B, and students with disabilities that are part of the citywide program will transition to four days per week of in-person learning.
When asked about accommodating families who want to shift from virtual to hybrid teaching, Hutchings said that the newly implemented three-foot distancing rule at two days a week will allow for the “maximum number of slots and opportunities” for families while still keeping staff and students together.
“Why we weren’t able to do as many accommodations this spring is because we made the commitment to keeping students with their teachers and not having another disruption,” Hutchings said at the meeting. “So, if you’re assigned to a particular teacher we wanted to keep you with that teacher through the remainder of this year, which caused some limitations for us in having so much flexibility.”
The ongoing issue of how to distribute special services also cropped up at Monday’s rally. During her speech, pediatric physical therapist Kathryn Grassmeyer said that the population she works with is blocked from participating in virtual care programs.
Additionally, even though ACPS students with disabilities are now in school up to four days a week, all of their special services – from reading specialization programs to occupational therapy – are provided through a screen.
“It is not an appropriate way to provide services,” Grassmeyer said in her speech. “For the school to keep saying they’re giving children with special needs these services, [it’s] like giving a kid with a peanut allergy a peanut butter sandwich and saying, ‘We’re giving you lunch.’ They cannot take in these services this way.”
Grassmeyer called for an immediate change that would exempt kids with disabilities from Zoom learning and move them to four days of in-person learning, along with all of their special services.
Others called for an immediate change in leadership.
ACPS student Matthew McFillin showed up to the protest with a pithy “Zoom Sucks” poster.
“Kids are sitting in their beds while doing Zoom. It doesn’t work; they’re not really getting educated,” McFillin said.
His father, Kevin McFillin, said he and his wife have reached out to ACPS staff on multiple occasions to address this issue, only to be ignored or sidelined.
“They’re not doing their job,” said McFillin, emphasizing that a shift in leadership needs to occur. “They don’t want to answer because they don’t have an answer. They just ignore you, and our kids are falling behind.”
ACPS transitioned from six-foot distancing to three-foot distancing on Monday and will begin an in-person summer session on July 6.
The school district is currently planning for five days of in-person instruction in the fall. Students will be able to participate in either in-person or virtual learning; there are currently no plans for a hybrid option.
“That’s a lot that’s happened … over the past month, but we are looking forward to continuing our efforts and our work to solidify all of our plans and to transition as many students as we possibly can over the next few weeks,” Hutchings said.
ACPS staff will share its next update with the board on May 6.