“Based on our staffing component, it is just not feasible to do that earlier,” Hutchings said when board members questioned him about the fate of high school students.
After hours of debate that stretched close to 11 p.m., the board voted unanimously to endorse the superintendent’s strategy generally — but with a couple of caveats. The board voted to ask that Hutchings develop an in-person learning plan for high-schoolers. The board also refused to endorse an idea, advanced by Hutchings during the meeting, that face-to-face instruction would take place just one day per week for students whose families choose the hybrid learning option.
Hutchings’s district of 16,000 has been online-only since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-October, the superintendent and his staff presented an initial reopening plan to the school board — one that was slightly more cautious, and less detailed, than the strategy unveiled Wednesday.
The updated plan proposes bringing to school all students in kindergarten through second grade who are enrolled in the citywide special-education program — and who opt for in-person learning — starting Nov. 5. On Nov. 17, the in-person group will expand to include third- through fifth-graders in the same category. On Nov. 30, kindergarten through fifth-grade students with disabilities who choose in-person learning and who receive self-contained language arts and math instruction — a form of class offered to certain autistic and special needs children — will also return. In December, students with disabilities who participate in the citywide special-education program, and who opt for in-person learning, will return.
Students who receive general education will begin setting foot in classrooms starting in 2021. In January, all remaining pre-kindergarteners through fifth-graders who choose in-person learning will return, according to the plan. In February, all remaining sixth- through eighth-graders who choose in-person learning will return.
It remains unclear, however, exactly what that in-person instruction will look like.
Throughout the evening Wednesday, Hutchings argued for a system that would offer every child who chooses it one day of in-person learning per week. This system would also require some Alexandria educators to simultaneously teach in-person and remote classes.
These aspects of the superintendent’s program drew heavy fire from board members throughout the hours-long meeting Wednesday. They questioned whether staffers could handle teaching in-person and remotely simultaneously, and asked why the school system could accommodate no more than one day per week of face-to-face instruction.
Again and again, Hutchings cited what he called the two central “constraints” limiting his reopening ambitions: building capacity and staffing. Alexandria’s buildings, after being reconfigured to follow health and safety measures, such as social distancing, simply cannot accommodate all the students who wish to return in person, the superintendent said.
More problematic, Hutchings said, is that not enough teachers are willing to return and work in person.
“We may be the only school division so far that is being very transparent about the constraints and what is possible and what is not,” he said. “The major caveat is the staffing component. No matter how great the plans we put together, no matter how much time we invest and how many experts we have at the table, if we do not have adequate staffing . . . it no longer becomes an option.”
Neighboring school systems in Northern Virginia are grappling with similar problems. Even as school systems including Fairfax County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools announce they would also like to begin phasing small groups of children back into schools, many educators maintain they cannot return to classrooms, either because they are frightened for themselves or for vulnerable family members.
Administrators in Fairfax County Public Schools and other districts have adopted harsher tactics than Alexandria. Fairfax officials recently told reluctant teachers that they can resign or retire if they are unwilling to come back in person.
But Hutchings said Wednesday that he is unwilling to pressure his staffers.
“We can’t force people who have health conditions, we can’t force people who have age restrictions, people with family circumstances — we cannot force them to come to work tomorrow, and that is a fact,” he said. “We are going to have to own and understand that, even though that is not the place we want to be.”
Still, he admitted that the one-day-a-week plan is not a great solution. He said it would doubtless cause disruption for both students and teachers, who have by now adjusted to the wholly virtual learning model.
In an ideal world, Hutchings said, he would sort his staff into two categories: a force devoted to online learning and a force devoted to in-person teaching. That way, no one would have to face the stress of doubling up to manage both forms of education.
And, in an ideal world, he would be able to bring students back into classrooms at least two days every week.
“It is not the best option,” Hutchings said of the one-day plan. “But it is the only option that is feasible right now.”