School Board to vote on vaccine and testing plan

School Board to vote on vaccine and testing plan
ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo/ACPS)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Just days ahead of Alexandria City Public Schools reopening fully in-person on Aug. 24, the School Board is set to vote on a proposal regarding vaccine requirements and testing for ACPS staff tonight.

According to a statement from Julia Burgos, school and community relations chief for ACPS, staff has been working with “our regional and local colleagues to develop a comprehensive and sustainable proposal that addresses the issue of vaccine requirements and testing for employees.” Burgos did not specify what the proposal entails or whether it will mandate that staff receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

As school districts across Northern Virginia prepare for a return to in-person learning at a time when the Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading quickly throughout the country, several have already mandated that staff get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Alexandria’s neighboring school districts, including Arlington County, Fairfax County and Prince Williams County, have all mandated vaccinations or frequent testing for staff.

Within Alexandria, several private schools have also moved forward with vaccine requirements for staff. Grace Episcopal School will require vaccinations for staff, while Alexandria Country Day School has already hit a 100% vaccination rate for its faculty and staff, according to a statement from Head of School Scott Baytosh.

Alexandria’s late decision on whether or not to mandate vaccinations for staff has left many parents scratching their heads.

Hakan Ozsancak, the parent of two ACPS students, questioned why ACPS has yet to mandate vaccinations for staff when ACPS leadership was adamant in the spring that it would not return to in-person education until there was an effective vaccine.

“Why are we playing Russian roulette? Why are we not looking at the data and the science?” Ozsancak said. “The safety of our children and the safety of our staff and teachers, pretty much the only way to cope with [COVID-19] is with vaccinations and making it mandatory.”

ACPS staff were some of the first in the city who were authorized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in January, and about 62% of staff voluntarily reported they had been fully vaccinated as of May 2021, according to ACPS.

Bridget Shea Westfall, an ACPS parent, admin for the Open ACPS Facebook group and School Board candidate, argued that ACPS’ reticence to act has been “a huge missed opportunity” to work on vaccine hesitancy among staff and to come up with a policy during the summer months.

“I’m really surprised that days before school we’re just now talking about this instead of having a policy implemented where staff have to be vaccinated or are subject to additional testing,” Westfall said.

According to Westfall, vaccine and testing requirements are not only a way to keep children safe but ensure that the schools effectively stay open in-person and don’t return to a virtual environment, which many parents claimed severely impacted their children.

“Right now, ACPS is placing the burden on our children on keeping schools open and our kids need to be in school, but if there’s going to be too many outbreaks, then they’ll be in virtual again. So, I see this mandate as our only option for keeping continuity of learning,” Westfall said.

Several parents also said they are unclear what ACPS’ plans are when students or teachers do test positive for COVID-19. According to ACPS, there was a COVID-19 case last week at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School, which started classes early on Aug. 9.

A letter was sent to families notifying them of the positive case, but it did not specify whether a staff member or student had tested positive. For any child that was identified as a “close contact,” the family received a separate letter.

According to the letter, which was sent out on Aug. 13, close contacts “are advised to get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible, self-quarantine, actively monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and get tested again 7-10 days after this exposure if their previous test(s) were negative.” The letter did not specify what ACPS’ education plans are for students who must quarantine.

“My question remains: Why do we not have a better plan? My biggest concern and issue with ACPS in general is that there’s a lack of communication pipeline,” Ozsancak said.

The School Board is scheduled to meet and vote on the superintendent’s recommended vaccine and testing plan at 7 p.m. tonight.