ACPS sets plans for return to virtual learning

ACPS sets plans for return to virtual learning
File photo

By Cody Mello-Klein |

After a snow-induced return to virtual learning in Alexandria City Public Schools last week, ACPS has outlined protocol for how it would transition to remote education on a school-by-school basis should staffing levels drop further.

During the Jan. 6 School Board meeting, ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. said that rising cases of COVID-19 throughout the region have exacerbated ongoing staffing shortages in the city. He warned that the situation could get to a point where virtual learning is a necessary but temporary pivot.

“We have to make sure we are making the necessary adjustments and pivots and adaptation when we are in situations where we have significant positives within our school buildings,” Hutchings said, emphasizing that while these plans refer to COVID-19 caused staffing shortages, the decision to go virtual last week was due to the severe snowstorm.

ACPS transitioned back to fully in-person education last fall after more than a year of virtual and hybrid education. Hutchings said the aim is to maintain five days of fully in-person learning but the spike in cases caused by the Omicron variant paired with students and staff returning from the holidays means some schools will have to at least temporarily move to virtual learning.

Like many board members, newly elected Vice Chair Jacinta Greene said the recent spike in cases has left many families afraid of returning to school in person.

“I strongly believe that it is of the utmost importance to keep our schools open for in-person learning, but there are segments of our community that are truly afraid right now to send their kids to school,” Greene said. “… Had we not had snow, they weren’t going to send the kids back because of the extreme surge in Omicron cases.”

According to the new protocol, ACPS administrators and staff in individual schools will assess staffing and resource needs each day in a specific grade, class, department or school and make a decision on whether to transition to either asynchronous or synchronous virtual learning. This is markedly different from ACPS’ previous approach, which used citywide metrics around community spread to make a division-wide determination.

In the three-tiered system, each school sits within either the green, yellow or red zone. Schools in the green zone are able to provide in-person education with few staff absences, although additional support – substitute teachers, classroom monitors or reassigned staff – is required in some cases.

Once 10% of staff are absent, a school hits the yellow zone. At this point, the superintendent, senior leadership and administrators in the school or department in question begin daily conversations to determine the feasibility of continued in-person education. This “feasibility team” looks at student and staff health metrics, projected absences, the necessary staff reassignments to keep teaching in person and other factors.

The team can decide to transition a class, grade, department or school to virtual learning if staff absences reach a point where in-person learning is no longer feasible. ACPS could also transition to virtual learning if division-wide transportation or meal services are disrupted as a result of staffing shortages.

“If we had a situation where we had a number of our transportation staff out … and we’re not able to provide the transportation, we wouldn’t be able to bring those kids to and from school,” Hutchings said. “That would be a reason why we would have to transition into a division-wide virtual learning setting. What we are doing now is monitoring our situations on a school-byschool, classroom-by-classroom basis.”

Once a class, grade or school moves to virtual learning, it is considered to be in the red zone. The first day of virtual learning will be asynchronous, and an assessment is made after that whether it is possible to move to synchronous instruction. Although Hutchings said ACPS will communicate with families about when a transition to virtual learning will occur, he did not specify how far in advance those notifications will occur.

“I wish that I could provide our families with a heads up that this is going to happen two days from now, but everything is really uncertain,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings also did not say how long a transition to virtual learning would last, only that ACPS would make daily assessments. The situation is further complicated by recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reduced the isolation period for those who test positive and have no symptoms or mild symptoms from 10 days to five days.

“The issue with setting [a return to in person learning] at five days is we’ve had some people who are positive who have been sick for nine [days], who have been sick seven [days], who have been sick for three weeks,” Hutchings said. “… It varies so much that it makes it extremely complicated, that we’re literally looking at our virtual learning options and transitions on a daily basis and also trying to look at who we may be able to use from other schools to assist as well, if it is possible.”

Board member Michelle Rief, who is beginning her second term and served during ACPS’ initial transition to virtual learning, said the current conversation feels like déjà vu.

“This feels like a really familiar place,” Rief said. “We’ve been in this place where we’re hearing from community members who want the schools to stay open. We’re hearing from parents who also want the schools to go virtual. We’re going to have to really do our best, as we’ve been doing all along, to balance everyone’s needs.”

According to Hutchings, every ACPS school has been operating in the yellow zone for the entirety of the fall semester, necessitating an “all hands on deck” approach to keeping classes and schools open: virtually all school personnel, including instructional coaches, central office administrators and even Hutchings himself, will have to start going into classrooms.

Board member Kelly Carmichael Booz asked Hutchings what ACPS is doing to recruit more substitute teachers, given the need for additional staffing. Hutchings said that despite ACPS’ recruitment efforts in the fall, which provided a fresh pool of substitutes, concerns around Omicron have caused many people to reconsider working in city schools.

Although a division-wide return to virtual learning might seem like a more streamlined approach, a bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly last year prohibits school districts from imposing a system-wide shutdown of in-person learning. The bill allows for individual schools, grades and classes to go virtual, but “only for as long as it is necessary to address and ameliorate the level of transmission of COVID-19 in the school building.” The provisions of the bill expire on Aug. 1, 2022.

Despite the current rise in cases, Hutchings said, “We have been preparing for moments like this.” The school district has a universal mask requirement in all ACPS buildings and vehicles and will be providing about 70,000 KN95 masks to all students and staff, with more deliveries planned for the future. ACPS also performs weekly screening testing at every school for students and staff and daily testing for unvaccinated athletes.

According to ACPS, more than 95% of staff has been vaccinated with two doses, and the district is starting to promote booster shots. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 16 years or older get the booster shot to enhance protection against Omicron. People are eligible to get the booster shot five months after completing the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, six months after the two-dose Moderna vaccine and two months after the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Those ages 16 and 17 are only eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, as of Jan. 11 46.3% of Alexandria City children between 5 and 11 years old have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 35% are considered fully vaccinated. However, this data is for all of the City of Alexandria, including nonACPS students.

Board member Ashley Simpson Baird asked if a mandate for staff to have boosters is necessary given the high level of community spread. ACPS instituted a vaccine mandate for staff in October.

“Now that the CDC is saying a booster will protect you as an individual and also protect the spread potentially of the Omicron variant in some of our school buildings, it should be something that we need to include,” Hutchings said.

Simpson Baird and Booz both stressed the need for transparency and communication with families. In lieu of ACPS being able to provide advance notice of a transition to virtual learning, Booz recommended that ACPS publish regular status updates about whether schools sit in the green, yellow or red zones.

“Having a sense of where my school is in that matrix is at least something where I can plan ahead and say, ‘Ok, we may be having to shift.’ And I can just know that that’s coming,” Booz said. “… More information is better than not.”

Hutchings said there is currently no plan to publish a list on a daily basis.

After the lengthy discussion between the board and Hutchings, Chair Meagan Alderton closed the conversation by admitting her total exhaustion from the pandemic.

“I can’t emphasize enough the impact that this has had on our education system. It’s almost dumbfounding at times,” Alderton said. “I feel like I don’t have words anymore, but I just appreciate everyone for digging in. I appreciate families for digging in as well. It takes a lot of patience. The uncertainty, I know, causes a lot of anxiety and I just think the more we see we are all in this together, the end will come.”