Alexandria, VA

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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It’s uncertain whether Alexandria City Public Schools will open for in-person schooling on Jan. 19, despite a phased reentry plan that will be sent out to parents on Monday.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. told the School Board Thursday night that it is difficult to say with certainty that schools will reopen on Jan. 19 for young students with disabilities.

“If I had to make a decision today, it [school] would be 100% virtual,” Hutchings told the School Board on 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 have 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.”

Meanwhile, Alexandria School Board Member Margaret Lorber is being criticized for stating that the school system would rather have students alive and educated rather than risking their lives by returning to in-person schooling.

“I think the fact of the matter is we have to live with this incredible uncertainty,” Lorber said at last night’s Board meeting. “Do you want your child to be alive or to be educated? And I think at this point in our lives, you have to speak out and take a position and I don’t fault those in the community who have spoken out and said that all of the CDC stuff and health department’s stuff is bunk that they don’t agree with the approach we’re taking, but I think the careful gradual approach that we’ve been taking is the safe approach.”

School Board members are now receiving emails regarding Lorber’s comments, and the group Open ACPS is calling for her resignation. A message from ALXnow to Lorber was not returned.

“As a mother, I’m horrified that Ms. Lorber insinuates I’m trying to kill my children by sending them to school,” said ACPS parent Ashley Lombardi, who is a member of the 700-member-plus strong group.

ACPS parent Bill Blackburn said students need to return to a safe environment soon.

“Our kids need to be back in schools; not today, not next, week, but soon,” Blackburn said. “We have to move forward. Our leaders need to make people feel safe, encourage them to follow the data and the science. Sensational quotes about children dying are irresponsible and unnecessarily stoke fear. A quote like this from an elected leader is frustrating and it makes me sad.”

Hutchings released the following phased reentry plan to the community, and will be providing a video update on Monday, Jan. 11.

New Board Leadership and Budget Update

Hutchings said the school system needs to retain staff during hard times, and is proposing $3.6 million for a 1% step increase for staff in the upcoming budget.

The new $292.25 million Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal is a 2% increase over the current budget.

Hutchings said that it has been a tough year and that the school system was unprepared for such an abrupt closing last March.

“We’re going to have to recover from this learning loss,” he said. “There’s learning loss that is happening for many of our students. There are social and emotional needs that are not being met on some counts for some of our students.”

According to budget documents, the school system anticipates losing 19 full-time staffers and 2% of students, or 329 students, in FY 2022. The school system is projecting that there will be 16,144 students next year.

Additionally, Board member Meagan Alderton was voted for a year as the new chair, replacing Cindy Anderson. Alderton defeated Board member Michelle Rief 6-3 in the internal election, with Jacinta Greene, Heather Thornton and Rief voting in the minority. Veronica Nolan, the current vice chair, was reelected 8-1 to another year-long term, with Rief abstaining.

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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In a report headed to the School Board tonight, staff at Alexandria City Public Schools have pinpointed racial disparities within the school division’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program.

Overall, staff found that in 2019 while white students only account for 28% of the school population, they comprise 62% of the TAG programs. Black students, who make up 25% of the overall student population, represented only 15% of the TAG program. The highest disparity was Hispanic students, who comprise 38% of the student population but only 13% of the TAG program.

“The data suggest that ACPS has disproportionality in enrollment in all of its advanced courses or programs,” the report said. “The ACPS 2025 Strategic Plan commits to eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps by monitoring our progress through: disproportionality of underrepresented students in advanced courses; disproportionality rate of students in TAG at the elementary level by school and student group; and disproportionality rate of students in advanced coursework at the secondary level by school and student group.”

A presentation prepared for the School Board outlines the racial disparities at every level of the program and outlines some paths forward to right-sizing the enrollment figures.

“The data indicates that the program has identified a substantial amount of white Talented and Gifted students in comparison to non-white Talented and Gifted students,” staff said.

The disparity also existed in advanced classes placement. At T.C. Williams High School, white students comprise 25% of the student population but 59% of the advanced placement program, 37% of dual enrollment, and 38% of the honors program.

The presentation ends with a series of recommendations to help close the gap, including:

  • Honors and dual enrollment summer boot camps
  • Honors information sessions during advertisement for students
  • Professional learning for staff on equitable instructional practices for minorities in honors courses
  • Collect additional data and feedback about how many students of color drop out from advance courses and why

Top photo by Jay Westcott, graph 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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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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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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