Alexandria, VA

Andras Jacobson, a second grade student at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, will get a unique opportunity later this week to take some of his space questions to the experts: an astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station.

Jacobson, a space exploration enthusiast, is scheduled to take part in a discussion with NASA officials on Thursday, Dec. 3, according to ACPS. Jacobson will get to direct his question to astronaut Victor Glover. Jacobson’s mother reported that his question focused on how human muscular systems respond to conditions in space.

“Here on Earth I know how our muscles act, but in space it may act differently,” Jacobson told ACPS. “I am also interested in the human body.”

The program is scheduled to be streamed through Facebook starting at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Photo via ACPS

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With COVID-19 cases on the rise and the holiday travel season upon us, the Alexandria School Board on Monday approved a recommendation by Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. to delay an in-person plan bringing students back to school until January 2021.

Specifically, the move delays bringing back kindergarten through fifth graders with disabilities who receive self-contained Language Arts and Math, which was planned for Nov. 30, and middle schoolers in the citywide special education program in December. No new set dates were presented, and Hutchings told the Board on Monday that he is following the advice of the Alexandria Health Department and does not want to act impulsively.

“This global pandemic is not getting better,” Hutchings said. “We could be entering the most deadly phase of this pandemic, with all the travel that’s happening right now in Thanksgiving, as well as the travel that’s going to happen over the winter break.”

COVID-19 cases in Alexandria reached 5,051 on Tuesday, an increase of 41 cases since the previous day. The rise in cases is similar to what was seen in April and May, according to Alexandria Health Department Director Dr. Stephen Haering.

“We’re seeing increases across the board,” Haering said. “It’s an all age groups. This department, the city, I think everybody is really focused on reducing the transmission in order to prevent this from affecting our most vulnerable population — our elderly and those with underlying conditions that can put them at severe risk.”

ACPS staff also presented the board with results from its intent to return form, which was completed by 100% of ACPS employees. Out of the 2,601 respondents, approximately 55% of staff are able to return to work on-site at this time, while the remaining 45% of staff are impacted by COVID-related concerns.

Earlier this month, staffing issues kept Alexandria City Public Schools from expanding in-person learning for students with disabilities in grades 3-5 and who are in the citywide Special Education program.

The school system is currently evaluating several learning models for the future, including “concurrent teaching,” which would allow in-person and virtual classes to be held at the same time. If a teacher is not able to return under this model, they could still appear via video from home, while an adult supervises the classroom.

“The teaching will still occur from from that instructor, regardless of where the teacher is so they can be at home,” Hutchings said.

The School Board approved Hutchings’ plan to bring back in-person schooling last month. Staff reported that they are still working on bringing back kids to school, although ACPS presented no new timeline. The previous timeline is below.

  • November 30: Expand to include Students with Disabilities in grades K-5  instruction who opt into in-person learning
  • December 2020: Expand to include Students with Disabilities in grades 6-8 who are enrolled in the Citywide Special Education program who opt into in-person learning
  • January 2021: Expand to include all remaining students in grades PreK-5 who opt into in-person learning
  • February 2021: Expand to include all remaining students in grades 6-8 who opt into in-person learning
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After a unanimous vote at the Alexandria School Board meeting last night, the names T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School were voted out — with the replacements still to be decided.

Over the next few months, the School Board will seek public feedback before settling on a new pair of names. The new names will be chosen by the Board in the spring and go into effect at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.

“I’m excited for this moment,” said Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, who recently threw his name in among supporters of the change. “It’s finally here. On behalf of our students: this is a historic moment for everybody. For many years people have been trying to have the name of T.C. Williams in particular changed… I want to commend the Board for allowing us to be able toe explore and get information from our community.”

T.C. Williams High School is the biggest public high school in Virginia, and is named after former ACPS Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams, who was an avowed segregationist. Matthew Maury Elementary School is named after an oceanographer and Confederate leader.

While efforts to rename T.C. Williams High School began in the 1990s, a renewed push this year was tied in with nationwide discussions about renaming honors to the Confederacy and other symbols of racial oppression.

“We can’t change history, but we can change what history we choose to honor,” said School Board member Michelle Rief. “The names were selected not because of their accomplishments, but as declarations of our community values in 1929 and in 1962. We have an opportunity to right that wrong.”

While the School Board members unanimously supported, others acknowledged that the symbolic change is far from the end of the discussion about eliminating vestiges of racism in the school infrastructure.

“T.C. and Maury no longer reflect who we are as a society, at least in Alexandria,” School Board member Heather Thornton said. “This is a symbolic step. Changing the name of T.C. is not going to do anything to eliminate systemic racism and barriers. It’s not going to solve anything. I hope people stay engaged and know this is a first step, but there are many things we need to have community engaged on.”

Thornton also pointed to disproportionality in suspension rates and graduation rates as lingering reminders of inequality in Alexandria City Public Schools, topics discussed later in the meeting.

“We can change the name all we want,” Thornton said, “but if we don’t change foundational issues I don’t think we will really achieve what we’re hoping to achieve as a school division.”

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Staffing issues kept Alexandria City Public Schools from expanding in-person learning this week, as young special education students were told Tuesday that they wouldn’t be able to go back to school as scheduled.

Families received a note from ACPS on Tuesday morning stating that school for students with disabilities in grades 3-5 and who are in the citywide Special Education program would need to stay home.

“Unfortunately, we were not able to return students in the (grades) 3-5 program as part of our targeted date of November 17, as the superintendent has said that all of our plans are contingent upon staffing and building capacity issues,” Terry Werner, the ACPS executive director of specialized instruction told parents in a Zoom call on Wednesday night. “We ran into some issues around staffing and we were not able to staff classes to bring students back from our next phase of students are scheduled to return on 30th.”

Werner spoke with concerned parents with the ACPS Special Education Advisory Committee. Parents said that communication issues were the biggest problem with the school system.

ACPS reopened schools to kindergarten through second graders with disabilities at  Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 International Baccalaureate School on November 5. There are more than 60 students eligible to return to in-person instruction, but the school system only brought in six students.

“Nowhere has there been communication that you know only six students were able out of 60 were able to return,” one parent said at the SEAC meeting. ” I think we have a communication problem with parents.”

Werner said she has been working 14 hour days on the phone trying to convince staff to come back, and that ACPS still plans to reopen schools to early childhood special education students in grades K-5 on Nov. 30.

Additionally, ACPS is still working with this general timeline:

  • November 30: Expand to include Students with Disabilities in grades K-5 who receive self-contained Language Arts and Math instruction who opt into in-person learning
  • December 2020: Expand to include Students with Disabilities in grades 6-8 who are enrolled in the Citywide Special Education program who opt into in-person learning
  • January 2021: Expand to include all remaining students in grades PreK-5 who opt into in-person learning
  • February 2021: Expand to include all remaining students in grades 6-8 who opt into in-person learning

“We’re still trying to determine if we have teachers,” Werner said. “I have people from one day to the next say, ‘I’m not coming back.'”

Werner said that families should receive a family choice form on Dec. 2, and that the results of a staff “Intent to Return” form will be available for discussion at a School Board meeting on Monday.

Photo via ACPS

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In a joint work session on Tuesday with the Alexandria City Council, Alexandria City Public Schools laid out its side of upcoming cuts and compromises in light of what promises to be a strained upcoming fiscal year.

One of the large items was that the planned modernization for George Mason Elementary School and Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology will be delayed by one year.

Design work for George Mason, originally scheduled for 2023, will now start in 2024, with construction and renovation taking place in 2025. Modernization of Cora Kelly, originally scheduled to start design work in 2026, will now start in 2027 with construction starting in 2028.

The City Council and ACPS also discussed the more immediate overhaul of T.C. Williams High School following last year’s vote to keep Alexandria to one high school. Staff said the schools are planning to bring an architect onto the project in the next few weeks.

After years of clashes between the bodies over colocating facilities — construction of a school or other project that also includes space for other city needs — the tone was notably more cordial as ACPS started the conversation with the possibility colocating uses like affordable housing at the new campus. Staff said they were looking to the city for guidance on what facilities the city was hoping to see included with the new T.C. Williams campus.

“The first priority is school education requirements,” said City Manager Mark Jinks, “then we to look at remaining space and see what works best and what doesn’t.”

“A few years ago we started talking about colocation to get to this point, now talking about colocating on city sites,” said City Councilman John Chapman. “Getting to a place where we have this full blown conversation about what we can do at sites is important.

While ACPS was planning deferring some projects to help save money, Jinks noted that 2020 would be a good time to start looking at land to purchase for a new school.

“Princes are down now,” Jinks said, “but they’re going to go up again after [the pandemic].”

School Board Chair Cindy Anderson agreed, noting that Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School had been purchased at a good price due to an economic downturn.

One site will likely be an ACPS facility at Potomac Yard, but Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said the schools are still working through the logistics of the site. The new Potomac Yard school is not in the school’s 10-year CIP because there aren’t plans yet for the facility, Hutchings said.

Elsewhere in the school district, the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild had been facing a $5-7 million shortfall, which has now narrowed to $2-4 million. Staff said that ACPS will not be requesting additional funding from the city but will instead work to refine contingencies, space needs, and update the site layout while continuing to search for other options for financing.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Heading into a School Board vote on Nov. 23, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings had thrown his support in with those supporting changing the names of T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School.

Hutchings explained his support for the name change in an opinion piece in Tes, an educator trade magazine.

“Inexplicably, it has taken until today, 55 years since the school opened, to see a committed renaming process that may finally remove him and his legacy from the only public high school in Alexandria, a small but influential Virginia city in the shadow of Washington, D.C.” Hutchings wrote.

The announcement comes after a presentation on Monday by The Identity Project, an initiative formed by ACPS to examine the issue. The project gathered community feedback from students, faculty and alumni, which found that 75% of responders agreed with changing the name.

T.C. Williams High School is named after Thomas Chambliss Williams, a superintendent who fought against integrating schools. Matthew Maury Elementary School is named after Confederate leader and oceanographer Matthew Maury.

“On Nov. 23, 2020, the School Board will vote on whether or not to change the names of T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School.,” ACPS said in a newsletter. “This comes after the start of The Identity Project, an extensive community discussion, which culminated in a presentation to the School Board (PDF) this past Monday, Nov. 16. In this presentation, Superintendent Dr. Hutchings presented his recommendation for the School Board to approve changing the names of both schools.”

In his essay, Hutchings references petitions that circulated around Alexandria earlier this year to get the name changed.

“In August, when I was informed that a petition with the requisite number of 100 signatures from anyone in the Alexandria community to begin the conversation had been submitted, I remember thinking this was our carpe diem moment,” Hutchings wrote. “Soon after, a second petition was submitted to change the name of one of our division’s elementary schools named after Matthew Maury, an oceanographer who also happened to be a Confederate who lobbied for the Confederacy in Europe, attempted to negotiate a slave trade with Brazil, and encouraged those with like-minded beliefs to migrate to Mexico following the civil war.”

Hutchings also recognized complaints from members of the community that things weren’t moving quickly enough.

“In the weeks and days that followed those submissions, there was frustration in our highly diverse school community — which comprises families from 120 countries speaking 121 languages — that things were not moving quickly enough,” Hutchings said. “But from where I stood, there was much work to be done to ensure a transparent, thorough and fair public engagement process.”

Hutchings didn’t include a recommendation for what the new name would be, a process likely to follow in early 2021 if the name change is approved.

“Later this month, the school board will vote on whether to change those two school names,” Hutchings said. “Among the suggestions circulating as alternatives are Boone-Yoast High School, named after coach Hermon Boone and assistant coach Bill Yoast from that famous ’71 football team, and Nolan Dawkins High School after the first African American judge in our city’s history. Other suggestions have included simply Alexandria High School.”

Both Boone-Yoast and Nolan Dawkins could generate their own controversies, with Boone’s role in the integration of T.C. Williams agreed to be somewhat exaggerated and Dawkins facing some public pushback earlier this year after it was revealed that the suspect in a murder had been out on bond approved by Dawkins.

Image via ACPS

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After weeks of speculation, ACPS announced today that the school’s winter sports season would be cancelled.

The cancellation will include this year’s boys basketball, girls basketball, wrestling, indoor track, gymnastics, ice hockey and swim and dive competitions.

“After consulting with the Alexandria Health Department (AHD), ACPS has decided not to participate in the Gunston District scheduled games or any Virginia High School League (VHSL) Championship events this winter,” ACPS said in a newsletter. “See the Recommendations/Guidance on Sports and Activities (PDF) from Dr. Stephen Haering, AHD Director.”

ACPS leadership had previously said any sports that could not maintain ten feet distance would likely be eliminated.

“ACPS is aware that this decision differs from VHSL Return to Play guidelines, which do not require athletes to compete with face coverings when within six feet of others,” ACPS said. “However, we believe the need to continue to comply with CDC guidelines for anyone on school property or in our buildings is a priority. We have a shared responsibility to ensure we are limiting the spread of the coronavirus and need to focus our energies and staff time on returning students to the classroom when feasible.”

Football is still possible next year given that the fall seasons sports were pushed back to February or March 2021

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Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. will present the school board with an update Thursday night on his continuity of learning plan to eventually bring back all elementary and middle school students to in-person classes.

All ACPS staff are also expected to complete an “Intent to Return” form by 3 p.m. on Wednesday, and the results of staff who plan to return will be made available by this Friday, according to ACPS. Students will also be required to fill out a form in late November or early December as to whether they plan on returning to in-person instruction.

Hutchings has presented a hybrid approach, and has told the board that the only feasible option to get kids back into classes safely is to hire significantly more teachers. Also, he says that students would only be able to attend school one day per week before alternating back to virtual instruction.

“We have 36 hours to tell the school board our stories,” one parent wrote online. “Together, our many voices can help drive our message to the school board that we need creative solutions to empower families to have a choice in when and how to safely return to school.”

Requests to make public comments at school board meetings can be made here.

Photo via Facebook

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Updated at 10 p.m. on Nov. 5: Alexandria City Public Schools partially reopened today (Nov. 5) for less than 10 students with disabilities, and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. told parents that this is but the first step of the reopening process.

When asked on social media how many students attended, ACPS responded that it was fewer than 10 students.

“It was under 10,” ACPS wrote on Facebook. “Many of the staff and students who initially indicated they wished to return, have since changed their ability to return. We are trying to accommodate as many students as we can, while adapting to changing circumstances every single day.”

This is the first in-person schooling in ACPS since the pandemic forced the school system to shut down on March 13.

“This morning, we had the opportunity to welcome back the first of our ACPS students at Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School,” Hutchings wrote parents in an email Thursday morning. “While this was just a small group, we want to make sure we have thought through all health and safety measures before we expand our in-person learning to more students.”

The School Board board last month approved allowing back kindergarten through second graders with disabilities to Jefferson-Houston, and then expand to include all citywide special education students by December.

“We are working through all the pieces to get all our students back in school as soon as possible,” Hutchings wrote.

Hutchings also wrote that not all school staff will wear as much protective gear as seen in a recently released ACPS simulation.

The full note from Hutchings is below.

ACPS Families,

This morning, we had the opportunity to welcome back the first of our ACPS students at Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School. While this was just a small group, we want to make sure we have thought through all health and safety measures before we expand our in-person learning to more students.

We are working through all the pieces to get all our students back in school as soon as possible.

We also wanted to provide some clarity regarding the simulation we shared with you in ACPS Express yesterday. Please review the FAQ that will give you answers to some of the Frequently Asked Questions. Please note that the Specialized PPE worn by staff during the simulation is required only for certain staff, including those staff who are part of the citywide program for Students With Disabilities. These staff members are required to assist with restroom visits and feeding, in addition to instruction, and may not be able to maintain social distancing at all times.

If you have more questions about the health and safety guidelines for each particular group of students, please see the Virtual PLUS+ Phased Reentry Plan document we shared on Oct. 21. You can also see our Health and Safety Measures page, which outlines who will use Specialized PPE.

We will let you know how our first day of in-person learning went in ACPS Express next Wednesday.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr.
Superintendent of Schools

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As Alexandria City Public Schools prepares to partially reopen its elementary schools to special needs students on November 5, more than 400 parents are coordinating a new messaging campaign to fully reopen the school system.

Parents with the Facebook group OpenACPS! just printed 1,000 “OpenACPS” signs to be displayed in front yards around the city. More than 600 signs have already been given away, said group organizer Kirsten Dougherty.

“Are you familiar with the capacity slide?” Dougherty asked, referencing a presentation recently made by ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. to the School Board. “There’s five desks in a classroom. If you look at that slide, there’s no desks against the wall. There’s no furniture moved out of the classroom, there are no creative solutions to get more children in that classroom and keep them six feet apart.”

Last month, the board approved allowing back kindergarten through second graders with disabilities to Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 International Baccalaureate School on November 5, and expand to include all citywide special education students by December.

The group said that ACPS leadership “can and must do better to solicit, propose, and meaningfully consider innovative approaches to safely getting our children back to school.”

Meanwhile, ACPS just released a video with a simulation of what reopening schools will look like.

“Schools begin reopening November 5 starting with our most vulnerable — the citywide K-2 program for students with autism and intellectual disabilities,” the video states.

Before leaving home students complete a health questionnaire, and school staff wearing protective gear meet students outside the building, escort them in and get their temperature taken. Desks are distanced throughout classrooms and separated by plexiglass screens, and students are required to wear face masks.

“As we transition some of our students to in-person learning, we must keep in mind that in-person learning during a pandemic is significantly different from our learning environment prior to closing our school buildings on March 13, 2020,” Hutchings recently wrote in ACPS Express. “It is important that we remain methodical and strategic with our transition into in-person learning with so many uncertainties. Our transition planning remains contingent upon staffing and building capacity.”

As previously reported, Hutchings and ACPS staff told the board that building capacity and staff shortages will prevent a phased-in approach. Hutchings said that the only feasible option is for students to attend school one day a week, hire a significant number of additional teachers and find more classroom space. Additionally, 44% of teachers already said they are very or somewhat unlikely to go back to school in the event of facilities reopening with COVID restrictions.

Kathryn Grassmeyer and four other parents rotate hosting duties for their five second grade children throughout the week.

“We’re trying to be creative parents,” Grassmeyer said. “We are really trying hard to make this work for our kids, and we’re trying to make it work for ourselves as parents. We truly want to support our schools and we just feel like we want the same level of effort from our leadership.”

Image via ACPS

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Two years after the city council approved the addition to stadium lights as part of the renovation of Parker-Gray Stadium at T.C. Williams High School, lawsuits have been settled with 15 Alexandria homeowners to allow the installation to happen.

“This is a historic settlement that ends decades of dispute relating to our City’s only high school,” Mayor Justin Wilson wrote on social media. “I am pleased that we will be able to move forward together as a community to support our students and our residents.”

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne approved the agreement between the homeowners, the Alexandria School Board and the city. It resolves four outstanding lawsuits against the city after ACPS allegedly made a verbal contract with homeowners that it would never light the field, after the land on which T.C. Williams High School was taken by eminent domain in the 1960s.

“I am delighted that our students will now have access to the modern facilities that will promote school spirit and enhance their social and athletic experience,”said ACPS Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. “This is a momentous day and I now look forward to moving on and focusing our attention on supporting our students in achieving the successes they have come to expect both on and off the field.”

According to ACPS:

  • The lights can be used for 50 game nights (which may include one or two games per night) per academic year, plus any postseason games. That limit does not apply to situations where lights are turned on during the day or afternoon for rain, overcast or fog
  • Lighted games can go as late as 9:45 p.m. on weekdays (Monday through Thursday) and 10:15 p.m. on weekends (Friday and Saturday). There are to be no lights on Sundays. Lights must be turned off within 15 minutes of the end of the game
  • Lights can be used for ACPS in-season athletic team practices to 7:45 p.m. every day except Sunday. Teams have previously scrambled for lighted practice space elsewhere in the city during the fall and early spring
  • Amplified sound is permitted only for varsity games, and limited to the current residential maximum under the Alexandria City code
  • Only ACPS athletic teams will have access to use the lights
  • A multi-step administrative dispute resolution process has been set up for any disagreements which occur with respect to compliance with the legal agreement or certain DSUP conditions
  • The term of the agreement is 40 years
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The Alexandria School Board last Thursday approved a revised bi-annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers in the city’s public schools.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. also said that all Alexandria City Public Schools employees will get racial diversity training.

“That is what’s going to help us to tackle some of those racial disparities, because unfortunately society has made black and brown people in general seem as if we are criminals, and that is the perception that people have in their minds,” Hutchings said.

Last month, parents, students and community advocacy representatives railed against SROs, and said they foster an inappropriate culture of prejudice against non-white students. LaDonna Sanders, president of the Alexandria NAACP, filed a Freedom Of Information Act and found that in 2018 there were 140 out-of-school suspensions, and that a “significant enough proportion of the suspensions involve referrals to law enforcement.”

However, “In the event of a significant and articulable threat to health or safety school or for school officials may disclose any information from student records to the appropriate parties, including law enforcement officials, whose knowledge of the information is needed to protect the health and safety of a student or other individual,” according to the MOU.

The Board approved the MOU 6-3, and Board Members Michelle Rief, Jacinta Green and Heather Thornton voted against its approval. As previously reported, the MOU has “measurable objectives” for SROs, meaning that the officers have to complete statistical reports, data collection for quarterly performance reports, and after-action reports after incidents with students.

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