Alexandria, VA

It was a historic week in Alexandria. Here are some of the highlights.

President Joe Biden visited the Neighborhood Health COVID-19 vaccine site at Virginia Theological Seminary on Tuesday, just before announcing that the date for adults to get access to the vaccine has been moved to April 19.

The Alexandria School Board, on Thursday night, voted to change the name of T.C. Williams High School to Alexandria City High School.

The School Board also voted unanimously to reduce the distancing requirement in ACPS schools from six feet to three feet, all the while community support is growing to expand in-person instruction to more than the current two days a week. Summer school is currently planned to begin in July and will be four days a week, and ACPS is planning on reopening to five days a week at the beginning of the next school year.

Our top story was on the T.C. Williams Titans junior varsity football team walking off the field after an incident with the Robinson Rams on Monday night. Robinson Rams players allegedly spit at and made a racial slur against T.C. players. The incident has prompted Fairfax County Public Schools to announce a “stand-down” meeting for all athletic teams and coaches to discuss “appropriate behaviors required to play sports in FCPS.”

Additionally, six Alexandria Police officers were placed on administrative duties after a chase suspect died while in custody. Police responded to a call for shots fired in the 800 block of North Patrick Street, and multiple buildings and vehicles were struck. The driver of the vehicle crashed on Interstate 295, and then jumped over an overpass barrier and fell more than 20 feet and was tased by police, arrested and later died.

Important Stories

Top Stories

  1. JUST IN: T.C. Williams JV football team walks off field after alleged racial slur, spitting incident
  2. BREAKING: Shots fired in Old Town leads to chase that ends in D.C.
  3. JUST IN: President Biden set to visit Alexandria vaccination site Tuesday
  4. National Park Service announces George Washington Parkway to go on a diet
  5. Neighborhood Health vaccinating thousands at sites in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County
  6. JUST IN: Woman arrested after fight on King Street Metro station platform
  7. UPDATE: $8,500 reported stolen in terrifying West End robbery
  8. JUST IN: President Biden visits COVID-19 vaccine site at Virginia Theological Seminary
  9. COVID-19 update: Alexandria moves into vaccination phase 1C
  10. JUST IN: Six Alexandria Police officers put on administrative duties after chase suspect dies
  11. Fairfax County man arrested for three burglaries, released three days later

Have a safe weekend!

Photo via T.C. Williams Football Boosters/Facebook

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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.

Mayor Justin Wilson wants ACPS to fully reopen, and Hutchings said that ACPS is planning on four days a week of in-person summer school instruction and then fully reopening in the fall.

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.”

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“Alexandria City High School” on Thursday night was unanimously chosen as the new name for T.C. Williams High School. The Alexandria School Board voted for the name change for the city’s only public high school, and the effort took more than a year in the making.

“It’s a big deal and it will mean a lot for our future use,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said. “Sometimes it’s good for us to think about the power in reclaiming a name, in changing the name to mean something — other than what we’ve always used it for.”

The new name will be effective at the start of the 2021-22 School Year on July 1, 2021. Additionally, the Board changed the name of Matthew Maury Elementary School to Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School.

School Board Member Ramee Gentry made the motion for “Alexandria City High School”. It was approved unanimously.

I understand both sides of this,” Board member Jacinta Greene said.We have over 50,000 graduates that are very endeared by the name, by the initials T.C. And we have current students that still love being a T.C. Titan…. But not in the name of Thomas Chambliss. It will not mean that anymore.”

T.C. Williams High School is the largest high school in Virginia. It is known around the world for the 2000 movie Remember the Titans, which focused on its 1971 state championship-winning varsity football team that found greatness by working through racial adversity.

T.C. is named after Thomas Chambliss Williams, the superintendent of ACPS for 30 years. He required that all Black students wanting admission to previously all-white schools to go through an application process. Only 75 Black students (about 3%) were allowed to transfer to formerly white schools by the time Williams announced his retirement in 1962, and that was three years after the city officially desegregated schools.

“I had butterflies in my stomach all day just thinking about how long and emotional this journey has been,” said Lorraine Johnson, a student representative on the board. “We can’t forget about our elementary school and middle school students who are coming up before you know it. It’s going to be your time to shine in this high school of endless possibilities, and when it happens, take advantage of every opportunity.”

Gentry did not want the T.C. in another proposal — The City of Alexandria High School.

“You will always be a T.C. Williams High School graduate, and you can wear that with pride,” Gentry said. “But this is the beginning of a new period in history.”

Principal Peter Balas said that “A.C. Titans” is not far from T.C. Titans.

I’m a little concerned about a move to preserve the letters T and C in the name in some way, without having the engagement of our students,” Balas said.

Residents have tried in vain for decades to get the name changed, and many said that the process this time around should have been handled faster.

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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Mayor Justin Wilson says that money is no object and that he wants the Alexandria City Public Schools system to fully reopen to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

However, ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. says that in-person instruction won’t be expanded past two days a week at least for the remainder of this school year.

“We need to get our kids back in school full time,” Wilson told ALXnow. “Money will be no object, facilities will be no object. We will make sure that we get our kids back in school, and that that is what I’ve said from the beginning of this effort.”

Hutchings has come under fire for keeping ACPS all-virtual for a week following spring break. Some residents say that the school system is broken and that they are considering moving from the city.

Meanwhile, neighboring jurisdictions are opening up their school systems. Fairfax County Public Schools recently expanded to four days a week for in-person instruction and Falls Church recently returned to five days a week.

ACPS states on its website that it is planning on five-day-a-week in-person instruction this fall. As of the week of March 16, 2021, the school system reported more than 4,000 in-person students two days a week — a quarter of its 16,000-strong student population. Three days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the recommended distancing in schools from six feet to three feet.

“We are reviewing the revised CDC guidelines to determine how these impact our school division, as our reopening team continues to plan for the 2021-22 school year,” Hutchings wrote parents this week in an email. “We do not plan to adjust the current hybrid learning schedule before the end of the school year, at this time.”

Additionally, Hutchings and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton have been criticized for sending their children to private schools in the city that have three-foot distancing requirements, while the standard at ACPS is six feet. Alderton and Hutchings did not respond to questions on the subject.

ACPS will expand the number of students on April 20, Hutchings said, adding that students are organized via a “instructional prioritization matrix.”

“We expect to begin welcoming more students to in-person learning starting on April 20, and will soon share more information with families of the students who will be able to join the hybrid program later this month,” Hutchings wrote parents.

One parent said he is considering moving from the city.

“The latest email from the Superintendent laid bare the harsh reality that we do not have the will in our community or school leadership to do what is right for our public school kids,” the parent said. “It’s shocking that in a city concerned with equity, we have a different set of standards for those whose children attend public school.”

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Bill Campbell knows he probably isn’t going to be your first choice in the June 8 democratic primary for the Alexandria City Council.

It’s a crowded race for the slate of candidates, which in the heavily blue Alexandria is almost heavily favored in the November general election.

“I’m really encouraging people, after you’ve voted for all of the other reasons, friends or neighbors, your last third, fourth, fifth or vote — I think I end up in the top six,” Campbell told ALXnow.

Campbell was elected to the School Board in 2012 and reelected in 2015, but lost his reelection bid in 2018. Since then, he retired as a mechanical engineer, stayed involved in city government, and says he’s ready to fully jump back in.

“Biggest thing in my life has been: I’ve retired and my wife has retired,” Campbell said. “From a timing perspective, that’s been really good. We’ve been able to get our bills together, relax, and all our kids are out of school and in the workforce. I’ve joined the Commission on Aging, which is interesting because when i first came to the city I joined the Early Education Commission, so it’s kind of come full circle.”

In the years since he lost reelection, Campbell said he’s been happy to see the School Board-City Council relationship steadily improving — though that, too, has come under some fire from other candidates for mainly occurring behind closed doors and has seen some recent strain with questions of budget allocation.

“The most significant change has been the improvement in relationship between schools and council,” Campbell said. “We made a goal of better explaining school operations and city operations and made it a point for superintendent to improve relationships with city manager. When I first came to Alexandria there used to be huge debates over funding: fully fund schools and stuff, with people for and against Council. For the last three-four years, we haven’t had that. It’s been a good understanding and the City Council has done what they can to fully fund schools.”

Candidates in the City Council race run a full spectrum of opposition or support for current city procedures. Campbell fells pretty heavily towards the end of continuing the status quo of the last few years.

“I would approach these in the very similar manner that it’s been approached,” Campbell said. “I think it’s wrong not only for our citizens, but certainly for candidates to step up and say, ‘Oh, I would vote differently.’ There are so many things in considering the vote. We’re considering schedules and staff work and grants associated with something. There are so many things you have to consider prior to a vote, that I think it’s wrong to go back and say ‘I would have voted differently.’ I wouldn’t want anyone to vote for me if I felt like that’s something I would do. I wouldn’t want people to second guessing me on my board work.”

From his time on the School Board, Campbell has already faced a share of public second guessing. Primarily, Campbell was at the heart of a controversy involving the firing of T.C. Williams boy’s basketball coach Bryan Hill.

Hill was fired after driving a player — reportedly one of Campbell’s sons — home after practice without the parent’s permission. Parents on the team were vocal in support for Hill in the aftermath, saying in School Board meetings that the punishment wasn’t justified by the offense, but Campbell and ACPS were silent and refused to comment at the time.

Years later, Campbell still maintains some silence on the issue, and said it has been misrepresented.

“With elected officials there are certain personnel matters that you just can’t publicize,” Campbell said. “There’s often more than two sides of a story. It would have been wrong then and now to say any specifics, because it was a personnel matter, but I would encourage people to speak with people who were more familiar with the various things that occurred, and how things were handled.”

One of the more concerning accusations at the time was that Campbell forced the firing because his son was on the basketball team, but Campbell said that isn’t the case.

“It’s one of those things where you want to say so much,” Campbell said. “One thing where I think people are way off: Nothing different would have occurred if I didn’t have anybody on the basketball team. So anyone at all who implies that this had something to do with my boys or playing time, that’s just categorically not the case.”

Campbell says he’s been hurt this year by not being able to go out, knock on doors, and explain his positions to people.

“It’s different this year,” Campbell said. “This is my fifth campaign here in the city. It’s just one of these things where you just don’t know, you can’t interact the way you can normally. People just aren’t comfortable [with door-knocking] — and they shouldn’t be. So this campaign is going to be a lot of social media stuff, a lot of word of mouth, sharing information among groups. It’s interesting and difficult.”

Campbell said the big message he’s pushing is equity, particularly when it comes to ensuring equal access to housing in Alexandria.

“Probably our biggest challenge is around affordable housing, which to me is one of the most critical equity issues,” Campbell said. “If we’re really serious, and not just saying ‘diversity is our greatest strength.’ If we’re serious about that, we have to maintain affordable housing at serious levels. That equates to diversity in so many levels. Our city talks a lot about that, our value in diversity, but to me it’s very real.”

The push for equity is somewhat complicated by Alexandria’s new entanglement with Amazon — which not only has come under fire for abusive workforce practices, but is likely to drive up housing prices in currently-affordable islands like Arlandria.

“That’s the incredible tug of war between compassion and capitalism,” Campbell said. “Amazon will bring in good, solid paying jobs. At the same time, not everyone is going to have jobs that pay them six figures. At the same time, a lot of the housing that has been replaced had to be replaced… It will continue to be a challenge, we will continue to have folks that live here and live in million dollar houses that just don’t want much change at all, and then there are those living right on the edge in rental properties they can barely afford, and they want to keep that as long as they can. We want to keep those folks, but it gets tougher and tougher. I’m willing to fight as much as I can , but there are obvious tradeoffs.”

Campbell said he’ll help navigate that issue if elected to the City Council as one of six members — albeit if not as anyone’s primary vote.

“Equity, Experience, and Excellence are my three areas of focus,” Campbell said. “I want people to use all six of their votes. I want folks to take a look at ‘I’m this or that and I’ll vote for this person, but I hope with two or three votes left, you should look at who has the most experience.'”

Courtesy photo

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It was quite a week in Alexandria.

Our top story this week was on a man who allegedly crashed his car headfirst into the Verizon store near Potomac Yard. The suspect was later arrested in North Carolina.

The week was full of big news. Former Mayor Allison Silberberg announced her candidacy against Mayor Justin Wilson for the June 8 Democratic primary, and ALXnow has learned that the Del Ray Business Association is planning a debate.

One of our favorite stories this week was on Tobi, the Alexandria dog without front legs who needed a new $2,350 wheelchair. Within a day of posting the story, Tobi’s GoFundMe goal was reached. The fundraiser has since raised $3,590, and Tobi’s owner says the excess funds will be donated to help another disabled pet get a wheelchair.

As of noon Friday, our unscientific poll on mayoral candidates had 1,111 votes, but only 537 views. Former Mayor Allison Silberberg trailed by a large percentage for the first several hours, but she later received a surge of votes that led to her getting 589 votes, or 53%, to Wilson’s 432 votes, or 39%. Republican candidate Annetta Catchings, who also announced her mayoral candidacy this week, got 90 votes, or 8%.

Other important stories:

ALXnow’s top stories:

  1. BREAKING: Man rams car into Verizon Store near Potomac Yard
  2. Waterfront Commission tries to avert ‘Disneyland-like’ development in Old Town
  3. Flight attendant Annetta Catchings running for Alexandria mayor as a Republican
  4. Chadwicks going double-decker on outdoor dining at upcoming BAR meeting
  5. BREAKING: Former Mayor Silberberg rematch as she enters democratic primary for mayor
  6. City Councilman Seifeldein quits meeting after argument with mayor
  7. Three men tied up and robbed in West End
  8. GoFundMe launched to get wheelchair for Tobi, an Alexandria dog with no front legs
  9. Just Sold in Alexandria: March 23, 2021
  10. Republican J.D. Maddox announces run for 45th District seat
  11. Al’s Steak House to endure under new management

Have a safe weekend!

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A new report on plans to overhaul Alexandria High School’s Minnie Howard campus made a splash as staff said a planned aquatics facility likely won’t make the cut.

In a School Board meeting on March 18, staff reviewed three concepts for what the new school could look like. But while the proposed aquatics facility is included in school designs, staff said it’s ultimately unlikely that ACPS will have the funding necessary to go forward with a pool.

Staff said the issue isn’t so much the cost of the pool, but the cost to offset the energy requirements of the pool keep the school at Net Zero.

“It is currently not in the ACPS budget,” staff said. “Currently, the PV to achieve net zero for the pool is $1.2 million.”

As the School Board dove into the new designs, several members of the Board expressed frustration at the prospect of eliminating the pool.

“Our swim and dive teams have never had a regulation-size pool,” said School Board member Jacinta Greene. “They have to go outside of our city to have our meets. Right now they go to Saint James [in Falls Church]. We should try to push as hard as we can for our current students and future students.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said ACPS is looking into potential partnerships that could help reduce the cost, along with colocation to make the price tag more reasonable.

“We are working directly with the city with regards to any type of co-location, specifically with regards to the pool,” Hutchings said. “At the same time, the city has not supported funding for the pool, but I know there are other entities we’re trying to explore.”

Staff noted that public-private partnerships are being considered, which got some support from the Board. Hutchings also said that ACPS has reached out to new Assistant City Manager Julian Gonsalves to work on putting that kind of partnership together.

“If there’s anything the Board can to do help with P3 partnerships, or send letters or push,” said Board Member Christopher Suarez, “on behalf of myself, I’d want the Board to push that.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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Alexandria City Public Schools plan on opening for five-day instruction this fall, Superintendent gregory Hutchings, Jr. reported to the School Board on Thursday night.

Hutchings said that the transition back to in-person hybrid instruction on March 2, March 9 and March 16, has been “seamless,” and that the Board will receive a logistical update in April.

“We’re planning to come back to five days a week,” Hutchings told the Board. “We’re looking at the CDC guidelines that, hopefully, will allow us to do that with no guidelines. We’re also working to plan for five days a week, if we have three-foot social distancing and if we have six feet social distancing (as well as no restrictions).”

Today (Friday), the CDC shortened its distancing guidelines for kids in schools with face masks to three feet, a move that the school system anticipated.

Hutchings said that the school system will continue hybrid instruction next fall.

“We also understand that some of our families are still going to want in the fall their children to be a part of some type of virtual experience,” he said. “They still may not be comfortable, or may not be able for their children to return back into an in-person learning setting, and we are planning to develop our virtual curriculumvery different from the curriculum that we currently have in place, but a true virtual curriculum for students who may not return into our school buildings so that we can still provide a rigorous and engaging virtual learning experience.”

Some parents want in-person instruction five days a week starting now.

“We are thrilled our kinder student us back in school, even though it is only two days a week,” said Bill Blackburn, whose son attends Mount Vernon Community School in Del Ray. “My son’s only complaint was not being able to talk while eating lunch. All things considered, things went well for us and we hope to see more kids and more teachers back in person sooner rather than later.”

Governor Ralph Northam was in Alexandria in January to see some 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.

ACPS will also open a poll on March 22 to see how many staffers have been vaccinated. The employees will have the following choices:

  • Choose not to disclose vaccination status
  • Declining vaccination
  • Waiting for first vaccination appointment
  • Received first dose, waiting to receive second dose
  • Completely vaccinated
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The Alexandria School Board on Thursday, March 18, will conduct a public hearing on the proposed new names for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School.

The 5 p.m. public hearing will allow testimony from residents on what they think about proposals by Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings to respectively rename them “Alexandria High School” and “Naomi Brooks Elementary School”. The two finalist names were chosen from a list that ACPS released last month.

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.

Thomas Chambliss Williams was an avowed segregationist who worked to limit the number of Black students in segregated schools. Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was a pioneering oceanographer during the 19th century, was also a leader in the Confederacy during the Civil War.

A recent ALXnow poll on the issue found that, out of more than 800 respondents, 67% liked the high school name but not the elementary school name; 20% were happy with both names; 8% didn’t like either name; and 5% liked the elementary school name but not the high school name.

https://twitter.com/ACPSk12/status/1371493556528025602

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Students have returned to T.C. Williams High School, but the empty halls and spaced-out classrooms are a grim reminder that the “return to normal” is still a goal on the horizon.

T.C. Williams, a school which typically packs in 3,200 students, now sits just under 500 students. Principal Peter Balas said 475 students came to school this week.

Today (Tuesday, March 16) marked the return for general education students whose families opted to return, joining English as a Second Language (ESL) and special needs students who had been in the school for the last two weeks.

Those entering the schools have their temperatures checked at the door, with any students or staff with higher-than-normal temperatures led to a secure health annex. At other schools ACPS has already had to deal with contact tracing and limiting potential spread.

“We’ve had a couple of students and teachers test positive over the last couple weeks,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said.

Some students are in classrooms where they are spaced out and sit behind plastic shields, learning from teachers who are at the same time live-streaming to students tuning in on ACPS-issued laptops at home. Others sit in the vast cafeteria. Traditionally packed with kids, it now serves as an “internet cafe” where in-person learners take classes with virtual teachers.

Despite the noticeable changes, administrators said spirits are high as staff and students return to the buildings.

“We’re excited to be back,” said School Board Chair Meagan Alderton.

Hutchings said the school district is working on examining how the first week of in-person classes goes and building future plans for the schools based on that. ACPS is currently drafting plans for summer schooling and the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Currently unknown is how many of the school’s teachers are vaccinated. Hutchings said a survey will be put out on March 22 with a poll asking teachers whether they’ve been vaccinated, whether they’ve been trying to and haven’t, or whether they have no intention to get vaccinated.

Currently, ACPS says vaccines are optional for returning staff.

Some teachers have reported difficulty getting access to the vaccine, with the city’s supply trickling in as the waitlist grows. Hutchings said the city has been working with the Department of Health to have teachers prioritized early on for vaccination.

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