He was wearing one of his beloved bow ties, which was the only normal thing about the situation.
It was July 21. As had been the case all summer, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. was on a Zoom call.
He was sitting in his dining room, which is what counted as his workplace these days. Long ago forced to abandon his spacious corner office — with views of green treetops, rippling as far as the eye could see — he had lately also been forced out of his wife’s home office. The Zoom chatter gave her headaches, and Hutchings was on calls from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days. Sometimes on weekends, too.
“The big question this week,” said Simma Reingold, a managing partner at Education Elements, the consulting firm Alexandria had hired to help plan the return to school, “the question we need to answer is: Are both the hybrid and virtual model feasible? And which one do we offer to our community?”
Hutchings nodded. Time was running out. He had promised the families of Alexandria’s 16,000 students that he would present his plan for fall learning to the school board by Aug. 7.
Pressure for a decision had ramped up exponentially this week, after every other major school system in Northern Virginia — in Loudoun County, in Arlington, in Fairfax County — announced plans for online-only school. Hutchings’s inbox was a boiling flood of angry messages from parents: What’s going on? What are you going to do? Why haven’t you told us yet?
His iPhone lit up, and he bent forward. Was it a message from his son? Had his children managed to sneak up to the top floor to snatch a few illicit moments of television?
Reingold cleared her throat. The staff, Hutchings realized, was waiting for him.
“Say that again,” he told her. “I’m sorry, I missed it. I was texting.”
She explained for the second time that the team wanted to postpone sending out a survey asking parents and staffers to report their enrollment plans for 2020-2021. Hutchings had earlier promised to send the survey on Aug. 3, but Reingold said that was too early; the school system should wait until after Alexandria had decided between virtual and in-person learning, or a mix of both.
That way, Reingold said, families would know what they were signing up for.
Hutchings sighed. Another delay. He could just imagine the emails.
“If we wait too long, it will cause a problem,” he said.
But okay. They would push it back a week.
Planning for fall
Hutchings, 43, was having a long, awful summer.
Campus had been closed since March, shuttered in an attempt to stem the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. Thorny questions had cropped up quickly ever since: How do you keep kids learning for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year? How do you ensure children reliant on school meals keep eating? How do you deliver technology and Internet access to households in need of it?
And, from the start, Hutchings had feared the fall. He didn’t know what school would look like, but he knew it would not be simple.
In April, he decided that Alexandria needed to professionalize the planning process if it was going to get this right. He hired Education Elements at a cost of about $58,000. The planning group mushroomed to 150 people, subdivided into five task forces: social, emotional and academic learning; human and capital resources; school and community relations; financial management; and health and safety. The group met from 9 to 11 a.m. every Monday and Wednesday.
And Hutchings developed a new routine: 6:30 a.m., go on a run. Make breakfast. Zoom. Zoom straight through lunch. Break for family dinner. Try to catch up on his kids’ lives. Zoom till nightfall. Maybe squeeze in a phone call with his mother, who lives in Ohio and whom he had been unable to see since March.
It felt, he sometimes thought, like running a country.
Still, the routine held up — and held him up — until the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis caused the nation to erupt in protest, and Hutchings, who is Black, woke up one morning in June feeling like a heavy weight was pressing him back, irresistibly, into bed.
“What’s going on?” his wife asked. “What happened to you?”
He tried to put it in words, in a video he later filmed and posted to the school system’s website. He spoke about having a Black son and how he and his wife had always told the children that they could have and be anything they wanted. He spoke about what it was like to know that anyone out there in the world might see his son as an enemy. Might decide to shoot him.
When Hutchings showed up to a Zoom planning meeting a few days later, he wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. He opened the discussion by telling more than 150 staffers about an email he’d recently received from a parent, complaining about the clothes he wore to a video question-and-answer session.
“It said I was incompetent and unprofessional because I was wearing a hoodie,” Hutchings said. He considered ignoring it but decided to reply: “I wanted to help her understand that what she said was insensitive and insulting. . . . It was a microaggression.”
“I think that, if we’re going to change this narrative in our school division, in our city, in our country,” he continued, “we’re going to have to call a spade a spade.”
And then, with hardly a second’s pause, he started talking about scheduling. He had to keep moving.
'It's about what is feasible'
On Aug. 7, wearing another bow tie, Hutchings stepped into his office in Alexandria’s administrative building for the first time in half a year.
The final plan for reopening, which he would present to the school board in less than two hours, spanned a 28-page slide show and a 43-page PDF. All the length and detail boiled down to one conclusion, which still made Hutchings feel slightly sick: School would take place online.
Hutchings had started to suspect this was the only way to go back in July. He was, as always, on a Zoom call, when someone pulled up the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for school bus use in the coronavirus era. A 77-passenger bus, Hutchings read, could now fit about 14.
“Oh my god,” he thought. “We’re going to have to do virtual.”
But he didn’t say anything. He wanted the teams to reach their own conclusions — and they did, pretty much unanimously. Nobody (including Hutchings) thought virtual was the best way to teach kids. But Alexandria just didn’t have the supplies, staffing or space required to make safe, bricks-and-mortar schooling work with social distancing.
Now, Hutchings had to persuade the school board.
He and his staff members, collected on a Zoom call, ran through the full presentation one time to practice. It was nice to be back in his office, even just for the day. There were his degrees, hung in neat rows on the wall. A joke metal tin, which read: “EMERGENCY BOWTIE. FOR ALL FORMAL EMERGENCIES.” And his books, including a biography of Andrew Jackson and a large, white children’s book, whose cover showed a boy staring into a thunderstorm and clutching an inside-out umbrella. “WHAT,” the title asked in all caps, “DO YOU DO WITH A PROBLEM?”
Hutchings held up a finger as an employee finished presenting a slide titled “Deep Dive: Continued Meal Distribution.”
“One note: We need to change ‘supper’ to ‘dinner,’ ” Hutchings said. “Culturally, it’s just the more universal term.”
But that was his only edit. By noon — white AirPods pressed into his ears, red bow tie readjusted — he was ready to address the nine members of the school board, gathered separately before computer screens in their homes.
“Today’s presentation is not about what’s right or wrong,” he told the panel of pixelated faces. “It’s not even about what’s best for our kids, because we all know online learning is not what’s best.”
“It’s about what is feasible,” Hutchings said, and he hoped they believed him.
'The best actors in the world'
Three weeks later — after the school board voted unanimously to approve Hutchings’s online-learning plan and 15 days before the start of school — the superintendent paced the length of an empty library in George Washington Middle School.
Chairs stood at random, crazy angles, as though students had just left the room. Dust furred the jackets of books on display.
“This is so odd,” Hutchings said to no one in particular. He fiddled with his crazily patterned mask, threading it back and forth through the fingers of his right hand.
A masked member of his communications team called him over to a computer, careful to back six feet away as he arrived. It was time for Hutchings to address the 150 new teachers Alexandria was adding to its workforce as part of their virtual orientation.
“You are joining,” he told the screen, “one of the best school systems, I believe, in the world.”
He spoke about the value of self-care amid the pandemic and the importance of diversity. He spoke about a vacation the Hutchings family took before the pandemic hit — a trip to China — and the need for tolerance of other cultures. He spoke about his children: his daughter’s love of volleyball, his son’s love of soccer, and how he pretended to love soccer, too.
“That’s because we educators are the best actors in the world,” Hutchings said. “We have to pretend things are running smoothly, and we’re excited about what’s going on in the world, even when we’re not.”
He smiled, signed off and pulled on the mask. He faced his communications team. They had a half-hour before his next appointment: a masked tour of a newly renovated elementary school.
“Okay, phew,” he said. “Let’s go.”