At a board meeting Thursday night, Alexandria Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. presented several comprehensive memos and PowerPoints outlining the next steps for the school system of 16,000. Like its neighbors in Loudoun County, Fairfax County and Arlington, Alexandria is pursuing a policy that returns students to classrooms in small, gradually increasing groups — and that prioritizes students with learning disabilities, young children and those with a limited grasp of English.
Under the superintendent’s plan, 60 students in kindergarten through second grade with special needs would return to campus Nov. 5. Next, 55 third-through-fifth-graders with special needs would return Nov. 17. Then 125 special-needs prekindergartners would return Nov. 30, along with 175 students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are early-childhood special-education students or study “self-contained” language arts and math, meaning students with special needs or autism.
Hutchings would like to start returning English-language learners in kindergarten through fifth grade beginning in January and, around the same time, start designing “Teaching and Learning Centers” for K-through-5 students that would accommodate “child care and other services.” Finally, Hutchings is requesting that the board endorse his development of a plan to create a virtual learning option for any families in the school system who do not wish to return to in-person instruction “for the foreseeable future.”
“The goal is to have all students inside our school buildings,” Hutchings said. “But it’s like steppingstones.”
The school board could suggest alterations to the superintendent’s plan presented Thursday night, but it is not slated to formally vote on the proposal until its next board meeting, scheduled for late October.
On the same night in Fairfax County, Superintendent Scott Brabrand addressed the school board to offer a timeline for returning a significant percentage of the student body to classrooms over the next few months. He suggested sending prekindergarten and kindergarten special education students back to classrooms in early November, and general education first-graders and second-graders in late November. Some third- through sixth-graders would return Jan. 4, and more students in grades 6 through 12 would return Feb 1.
The students would not follow a normal pre-pandemic school week, however. As Brabrand and his staffers laid out, students who request to remain virtual will be able to attend classes fully online. Those that prefer in-person instruction would follow a hybrid model comprising two days of face-to-face learning and two days of at-home online instruction.
In what Fairfax officials are calling a “concurrent” model, at-home students would receiving exactly the same instruction as in-person students — both would be watching the same teaching from the same teacher, whether that teacher is working from the classroom or from the confines of their home.
After hours of heated debate, the board voted early Friday to ask Brabrand to pilot the “concurrent” model with students over the next few weeks and then submit a report, at a Nov. 12 meeting, on how well that worked before trying it with larger cohorts of students. Close to 1 a.m., they also voted to give tentative approval to earlier portions of the superintendent’s timeline — the parts that proposed returning students throughout the month of November.
The board tried and failed several times to reach consensus on later segments of the timeline — the suggested January and February return of more students — before finally voting explicitly and unanimously to avoid endorsing that timeline. Instead, they directed Brabrand to present more information and a revised schedule at a Nov. 12 meeting.
There has been some concern, in Fairfax and throughout Northern Virginia, that teachers will not agree to return alongside their students. Brabrand and his team attempted to put those fears to rest Thursday, referencing a recent staff survey — which drew a 56 percent response rate — that indicated 84 percent of educators are ready to return. Fairfax needs 85 percent of staff to agree to return in person to advance to the next phase of its reopening plan.
Fairfax officials also noted that, so far among educators asked to teach in person, some tried to get out of the assignment. Two-hundred and fifty-nine requested accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, 47 asked for leaves for child care reasons, 41 asked for more general leaves and 11 said they would resign or retire rather than teach in classrooms again.
Some board members in Alexandria referenced the Fairfax plans late Thursday, arguing that the neighboring school system seemed more ready to return a larger number of students to classrooms, and questioning why Alexandria could not do the same.
In explaining his reopening plans, Alexandria’s superintendent in part cited the results of a recent survey that Alexandria educators sent to families and staffers. That survey revealed that roughly two-thirds of families (64 percent) and slightly more than half of Alexandria employees (56 percent) were “very” or “somewhat” likely to return to classrooms if the school system offered an in-person option.
Still, Alexandria parents, students and staffers reported feeling pleased with the school system’s virtual offerings: 80 percent of families, 77 percent of staffers and 83 percent of students said they are “satisfied with the academic support/instructional resources” they have received online. Alexandria has been virtual-only since March.
Many households also indicated they would need to see significant safety measures in place before they felt truly comfortable sending their children back to campus. Forty-two percent of families said they wanted to see Alexandria require social distancing, 35 percent said they wanted to see daily temperature checks before school, and 39 percent requested a requirement for daily mask-wearing.
As the superintendent and his staff detailed Thursday, Alexandria’s strategy for safe in-person instruction specifies that teachers and students keep a distance of six feet at all times, and the school would allow students back inside buildings only in such a way as to ensure there was 65 square feet of space available for every person indoors. Social distancing markers — declaring warnings such as, “STOP HERE. MAINTAIN 6 FT” — would be spread throughout school hallways, along with colorful cones.
One teacher would be assigned to each classroom, and all desks and furniture would face in one direction. Every desk would be equipped with a clear, protective “sneeze guard” affixed to its wooden surface. Classroom “transitions will be eliminated and/or limited,” and all stairwells would become one-directional when students arrive and depart for the day.
The superintendent’s Thursday presentation also included a review of his strategy for bus transportation under pandemic conditions. A total of 6,500 students would be allowed to ride 123 buses, with children sitting one per bench or one per every other bench. Siblings living in the same household would be allowed to ride together.
Alexandria’s announcements came shortly after officials in Loudoun, which serves 82,000 students, published new details of how schools will reopen more classrooms in coming weeks.
Loudoun had previously said it would bring thousands of kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders back to classrooms in a hybrid learning model starting in late October. In a presentation to the school board Tuesday, Superintendent Eric Williams gave a date for that return, Oct. 27, and tentatively outlined a “Stage 3” plan to bring some older students back, too.
Under that new plan, all third- through fifth-graders whose families prefer hybrid learning — an estimated 2,420 third-graders, 2,370 fourth-graders and 2,475 fifth-graders, according to Williams’s presentation — would begin learning in person for part of the week starting Dec. 1.