In a unanimous decision Thursday night, the Alexandria School Board went against the recommendation of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and changed distancing in schools from six feet to three feet.
School Board members were unhappy that, also on Thursday, Alexandria City Public Schools posted that the school system “is maintaining six feet of physical distancing throughout the remainder of the school year.”
The statement has since been deleted.
“I’m going to be honest,” School Board Member Ramee Gentry said. “In my five years on the School Board this is probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I feel there has been a real disconnect in the communications and a real breakdown in the process that’s happened over the last two days. We have heard a lot of frustration from the community, and I quite frankly share that frustration.”
Hutchings said he will meet with staff early next week on when the new distancing guidelines will happen. He also said that staff have been figuring out how to make the changes since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their guidance to three feet last month. He told the Board that there was a celebratory discussion with staff after the CDC guidance came out on March 19.
“A couple of weeks ago when we received the updated CDC guidelines, we shared this information with our transition team… and we were having a really celebratory discussion about it because we were excited about the fact that three feet will allow us to bring more students into our schools,” Hutchings said. “We are committed to bringing back as many students as we can. Three feet is going to allow us to do that.”
Board Member Michelle Rief made the motion to change the distancing. She said ACPS mistakenly took the six-foot position without the Board’s approval.
“I make a motion that ACPs transition to three feet of physical distancing between desks to the greatest extent possible for the remainder of the current school year,” she said. “I am committed to returning as many students as possible to in-person learning this school year.”
Hutchings and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton have also been criticized for sending their children to private schools in the city that have three-foot distancing requirements.
“I want more kids in school as soon as possible,” Alderton said.
ACPS staff have had an opportunity to get vaccinated. In January, Governor Ralph Northam visited T.C. Williams High School to see ACPS staff get their first round of inoculations. As previously reported, around half of the school staff were uncomfortable returning to work when surveyed last fall, and Hutchings has been concerned with capacity and staffing issues.
Board Member Christopher Suarez said that he was blindsided by the ACPS announcement, in addition to Hutchings’ decision to keep ACPS all-virtual for a week following spring break.
“My concerns started when the announcement was made right before spring break, that we were going to extend virtual 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, you know, it was very concerning from a procedural standpoint.”
About 5,000 students went back to two days a week of in-person instruction last month, and Hutchings said that 3,000 more students will go back over the next couple of weeks.
The OPEN ACPS group, which is made up of hundreds of residents, commended the Board on its decision. The group is now asking the Board to weigh Hutchings’ decisions during the pandemic when his contract with the school system comes up for review this December.
“OPEN ACPS is grateful to the Board members who demanded answers and accountability from this Superintendent during last night’s meeting,” the group 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.”