Alexandria, VA

In a School Board meeting last week, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings and ACPS leadership discussed how COVID precautions could strain the school system’s already beleaguered capacity situation.

School administrators have been open about the fact that when students are allowed to return in-person, classes will be very different from how they left them. Rather than just classroom size, however, the concern is ACPS having enough faculty to handle returning students.

In December, roughly half of ACPS staff said they would be unwilling to return. Hutchings said he is confident that widespread vaccination could help restore some confidence from teachers and staff, but the school system is working on plans in case the schools face a staffing shortage.

Hutchings said schools normally operate with around 75-100% of their faculty working. This is considered the normal range. Because of CDC guidelines, Hutchings said the schools will be launching at what is considered strained capacity: 50-75% of their normal faculty.

“This will vary as we open our doors if outbreaks happen,” Hutchings said. “We could see a variance at different schools. It’s something we have to monitor on a weekly basis.”

Capacity is considered critical if it falls under 50% of staff, which is more likely with the schools already starting at a disadvantage. To compensate, the schools are looking to hire new classroom monitors to help run operations with reduced teacher capacity.

ACPS staff said there has been an identified need for 44 monitors, who are currently being hired and will be brought in over the next few weeks for additional training.

The schools are also finalizing reopening plans, such as a new policy that will mean siblings will go to school on the same days when possible to avoid additional strain on parents.

The schools also recently announced a new weekly posts on Monday detailing the status of school reopening plans.

“Us having a consistent weekly update is trying to be as transparent as possible with real data,” Hutchings said.

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School Board member Margaret Lorber has apologized for comments she made last week over the cautious reopening of public schools in the city during the pandemic.

“I was just amazed at the level of venom that I received in some of the emails,” Lorber said in a school board retreat on Tuesday night. “Everything gets put on social media so whatever you have said, gets amplified and misinterpreted 50 different ways. “

There have been calls for Lorber’s resignation in the wake of her comments supporting the cautious reopening of schools by Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. After Hutchings told the Board last week that the planned reopening schools to some students on Jan. 19 was not a certainty, Lorber approved of his approach and said, “Do you want your child to be alive or educated?”

Lorber made her brief apology as the board participated in a conversation on the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. Nearly all the Board members admitted that systemic racism exists, with Hutchings’ comments that he was not surprised, but saddened by the event, echoed by the board.

“I guess I’ll take this opportunity to just apologize,” Lorber said. “One of the things I’m feeling is depressed and embarrassed currently for my colleagues, because in a way I feel like some of the letters that came to me made it sound like they thought I read through a batch what our School Board thinks.”

School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan extended a “virtual hug” to Lorber, and said she had no doubt as to Lorber’s commitment to Alexandria’s children.

During the conversation, Board member Ramee Gentry said that the school system is now challenged with teaching children how to find truth in an era consumed by misinformation.

“This is about critical thinking,” Gentry said. “We need to teach children how to feel through this very complicated world, with all this information being thrown at them from all of these different sources, and we have to give them the critical thinking skills to understand what is true and what is a lie so that they can then make decisions.”

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Alexandria City Public Schools has pushed back its planned partial reopening for young disabled students from Jan. 19 to Jan. 26.

Citing the increase in positive cases of COVID-19, the school system announced Monday (Jan. 11) that the students in kindergarten to second grade with disabilities instead go back to school on the date that is currently designated for special education students in grades 3-5, disabled students in grades K-5 and English learners in grades PreK-5.

“Due to our current community transmission levels and school impact level, we have made the decision to delay the transition of Students With Disabilities in grades K-2 a part of our Citywide Program on Jan. 19 using our decision matrix,” ACPS said in the announcement. “We will continually reassess the situation and inform the community of our latest decision for transitioning into our school buildings.”

The school system also reported that the number of cases over the last week is more than 650 and that ACPS staffing and capacity are at a strained level, operating between 50% to 75%.

Below is the new tentative timeline for the partial reopening of public school in Alexandria:

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. indicated last week that the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, in addition to a rising number of cases in the community, put the Jan. 19 reopening at risk.

“If I had to make a decision today, it [school] would be 100% virtual,” Hutchings told the School Board last Thursday night. “This is based on community health metrics, staffing and capacity, and we’ve been saying that since the fall — people don’t want to hear it, but we’ve been saying — we want to open, but it’s based on staffing capacity community health metrics, and that still is the same message that we have to move forward.”

Also last week, School Board member Margaret Lorber supported a cautious approach to reopening and asked whether parents wanted their children alive or educated.

Photo via T.C. Williams Minnie Howard Campus/Facebook

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Facing a consistent barrage of concerned parents asking about reopening plans, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) said it will begin posting a weekly update on when the schools will reopen.

In a newsletter, ACPS said it will be holding a weekly review of the COVID-19 data to adjust the timeline for reopening.

ACPS planned to open the schools in January, but Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said it’s unclear whether that will happen.

Last fall, around half of the school staff said they would be uncomfortable returning to schools due to health issues, but vaccination of educators starting tomorrow could change that. ACPS said that 59.5% of families expressed a preference for remaining virtual, though this number includes 17% of families that didn’t respond to the survey who were marked down as favoring virtual schooling by default.

According to the newsletter:

ACPS and the Alexandria Health Department (AHD) have developed a reopening decision matrix that combines three main metrics into one chart: community transmission rates, data on positive cases, and levels of school division impact. The goal is to provide this matrix so families can understand our decision making for the phased reentry plan.

This matrix will be posted on the ACPS website and will be updated each Monday with the new metrics. Using the data in this matrix, each Monday ACPS will share an update on our reentry plans on the website homepage. This information will also be shared via ACPS Express in our regular Wednesday edition.

Image 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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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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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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The Alexandria School Board is set to vote on Thursday (October 29) on a revised memorandum of understanding with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers in the city’s public schools.

Among the changes are definitions of student “contact” with a police officer, since any contact with a student must be reported to ACPS. That includes:

1) questioning for law enforcement purposes; 2) detainment of a student(s); and 3) apprehension or arrest of a student(s). All contacts shall be considered reportable offenses, in addition to the reporting required by School Board Policy or by statutory requirement

The document also creates “measurable objectives” for SROs, meaning that the officers would have to complete statistical reports, data collection for quarterly performance reports, and after-action reports after incidents with students. ACPS employees would also receive training on the duties of an SRO. Additionally, an SRO would have access to a student’s education records only after receiving the written consent of the student’s parent/guardian or if the student is 18 or older. An ACPS administrator would also have to be present when an SRO questions a student.

School resource officers were reassigned to the APD patrol division when the pandemic shut down in-person school in mid-March for the remainder of the last school year. The MOU would continue the agreement to provide officers at T.C. Williams High School and other ACPS schools when buildings eventually reopen.

Earlier this 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.”

“We want the contract to end,” Sanders said. “Moreover, the racial disparities in law enforcement referrals were stark. Black students are nearly four times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than whites. Latinx students are twice as likely to be referred as white (students).”

The draft MOU states that if students are suspected of a crime and are not compliant, SROs and law enforcement officers “should obtain a search warrant in all cases where initial consent was not obtained and probable cause exists that a crime has been committed.”

According to the draft MOU:

SROs have the authority to question students who may have information about criminal activity (on or off school property). As sworn law enforcement officers, SROs have authority to stop, question, interview, and take law enforcement action without prior authorization of the school administrator or contacting parents, especially when timely information will help prevent injury, death or evidence destruction. For all other non-exigent circumstances, when it becomes necessary for the SRO or law enforcement officer to interview a student on school premises, the school principal or their designee shall be contacted immediately…

Police vehicles should be parked in the garage. Parking in front of the school should be avoided unless required for traffic control support or police emergency. c. Long arms. Long-arms (e.g. shotgun, rifles) should not be openly displayed in the school or around the campus unless there is an emergency. d. Body cameras. Body camera video should not be used in the school setting unless there is a law enforcement purpose. If used, such recording(s) must be strictly controlled and protective of juvenile information per legal requirements.

It isn’t the first time Alexandria SROs have come under fire: in 2018, an SRO accidentally discharged his gun inside George Washington Middle School.

The updated MOU must be signed by Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. by November 2, 2020.

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