On Thursday, the superintendents of Arlington and Alexandria City public schools became the latest school leaders to promise a return to normal at the start of the next academic year. They follow in the footsteps of Scott Brabrand, superintendent of neighboring Fairfax County Public Schools, who swore his school system would do the same earlier this week.
During a board meeting Thursday, Arlington Superintendent Francisco Durán said that, although his division of 27,000 will have to follow public health guidance, the setup inside classrooms should look pretty familiar to anyone who spent time inside schools before March 2020.
“In-person is five days a week, with normal start and end times, [and] teachers will be present in all classrooms,” Durán said.
He added that Arlington will eliminate the “concurrent” form of teaching, a notoriously difficult model that asked teachers to simultaneously instruct in-person and remote learners. In the fall, remote learners will be taught five days a week by a remote teacher, and in-person learners will be taught five days a week by an in-person teacher, he said. Alexandria — which serves 16,000 students — will do likewise, said Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr.
“We are not doing hybrid,” Hutchings said. “Five days in-person, five days a week of virtual, those are the two options we are going to have moving forward.”
Fairfax is killing off concurrent, too, Brabrand announced this week. But here the similarities end: Unlike Fairfax, both Arlington and Alexandria are planning to offer an in-house program of online instruction to students who remain virtual next year. And families in Arlington and Alexandria will be allowed to choose whether they want to stay virtual or return for in-person learning.
In Fairfax, by contrast, virtual status will be granted only to children whose families can prove a documented medical or social-emotional need for online learning, Brabrand said. And Fairfax will not offer its own online schooling program — instead, it will enroll children in the state-run, taxpayer-funded Virtual Virginia, with some school-provided supplements.
Arlington’s Durán pointed to Fairfax’s approach on Thursday and said he did not believe that would meet the needs of students in his county.
In the fall, “we are having [distance learning] because we know that many of our families are still concerned about in-person,” Durán told the school board. “And many of our families are having a better learning experience” online.
Parents in Arlington have until April 30 to indicate their preference for next year — online or in-person — by filling out a survey, the superintendent said. He said he added a new question to this form, which he had never asked before: “Why?” Durán said he hopes parents’ answers will allow him to better understand his community and how to best serve them amid the pandemic.
Alexandria families will also be able to choose their preferred form of learning next year, Hutchings said, although he did not go into specifics.
Another emerging split between Northern Virginia school systems is how officials are reacting to the recent change in federal guidance that recommended three feet, rather than six feet, of social distancing inside classrooms.
Fairfax and Loudoun County public schools seized on the shrunken distance to expand the number of days of in-person learning they are offering to students this semester — going from two days a week to four days a week of face-to-face instruction.
Arlington and Alexandria, however, are sticking to two days a week of face-to-face learning for the vast majority of children but expanding the number of students attending those classes.
Half of Arlington’s schools have now “cleared” their wait lists of families who wanted to switch from virtual to in-person learning, Durán said. Just 241 students remain on these wait lists, and schools are working to accommodate them as classrooms continue to flip to three feet of distancing. More than 64 percent of its student body comes to school buildings two days a week.
In Alexandria, meanwhile, 34 percent of the student body — roughly 6,000 kids — had returned as of late March. Since then, the school system has worked to welcome back children at all grade levels, the superintendent said, although he did not provide hard numbers.
One cohort of elementary-schoolers returned Tuesday, and another on Thursday, Hutchings said. Some middle- and high-schoolers are slated to go back on April 27 and April 29.
And Alexandria is not done: The school system will finish switching to three feet of distance inside all of its classrooms on Monday, Hutchings said, which will allow officials to return yet more children. Another group of elementary-schoolers is slated to return in early May, and another group of middle- and high-schoolers in mid-May.
Alexandria has prioritized returning the most vulnerable children, Hutchings said. So far, he has sent back into classrooms students whose first language is not English; students experiencing homelessness; students who are in need of extra social, emotional or academic support; and students who have earned D’s or F’s. The next returnees will include students who struggle to access technology required for remote learning, students who desire to switch from virtual to in-person schooling and students who enrolled in January.
Still, both school districts are in fact sending a small population of kids into classrooms four days a week; mostly students with disabilities.
Both the Arlington and Alexandria superintendents defended their strategies as compared with Fairfax’s and Loudoun’s. Both indicated they had received significant parent pressure to switch to four days a week of in-person learning.
“Our approach has been to open up more opportunities for students to come in-person,” Durán said.
Hutchings said he wants “as many families as possible” to get the chance to participate in face-to-face instruction: “That is why we are sticking to two days a week.”
The two superintendents also gave updates on how summer schooling will go.
In Alexandria, summer school will be opt-out, meaning families will have to choose not to participate. It will run from July 6 to July 30, with both in-person and virtual options. In deciding who gets to attend in-person, school officials will prioritize the most at-risk children using the same criteria they employed when deciding which students should return to classrooms this semester.
In early August, Alexandria will offer an additional two weeks of summer schooling to students who are having a particularly difficult time. That initiative, a first for the school system, will be online-only.
In Arlington, summer school will comprise two distinct programs — five days a week of in-person learning and five days a week of full distance learning — and families will be able to choose between them. Summer learning will run from July 6 to July 30 for elementary students, and from July 6 to August 6 for middle- and high-schoolers.
Arlington’s summer schooling will be open only to children identified as eligible by school administrators or counselors, probably because they are struggling academically, socially, emotionally or in all three categories.
English learners of all ages who are not meeting their required language growth targets will be eligible, as will students with disabilities who receive Individualized Education Programs. Also eligible are incoming middle- and high-schoolers who earned D’s or E’s in classes required to pass on to ninth grade or to graduate high school.
At both the Arlington and Alexandria meetings, though, discussion moved past the summer to focus on preparations for the fall.
Alexandria will install 1,500 more air purifiers in classrooms and common spaces starting next week, at a cost of roughly $631,000, according to Alicia Hart, executive director of facilities and operations. Staffers are also working to estimate the cost of any more replacements or repairs that will have to take place ahead of this fall.
In Arlington, meanwhile, school officials have set up coronavirus testing sites. As of this week, there are three sites — one at Glebe Elementary, one at Kenmore Middle and one at Wakefield High — that will offer free testing to students and staffers who are symptomatic or who have been exposed to a coronavirus patient.
Indulging in a rare moment of uncomplicated pride, Durán said he was thrilled to see the testing sites up and running.
“Arlington,” he said, “is the very first division in all the commonwealth [of Virginia] to open covid-19 testing sites at our schools.”