Alexandria City Public Schools switches back to online learning until early 2021

In explaining the decision to postpone face-to-face instruction, Hutchings cited spiking coronavirus cases nationwide, in D.C. and in its suburbs, including Alexandria. On Monday, the seven-day average number of new cases in the greater Washington region hit a record high — 4,824 — for the 20th consecutive day.

“I can’t make the global pandemic go away,” said Hutchings, who said he was disappointed by the delay. “That’s not something I have control over.”

Alexandria City schools, like most school systems in Northern Virginia, has been mostly remote since March. A few of Alexandria’s neighbors — including Loudoun County Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools — began bringing back hundreds, even thousands, of vulnerable students and young children in October, back when the regional caseload was mostly holding steady.

But as cases rose exponentially across the country in November, many school systems chose to halt their return plans, and in some cases reversed them. Last week, Fairfax — which enrolls 186,000, making it the largest school system in Virginia — delayed in-person learning for nearly 7,000 students until at least the end of November. Arlington Public Schools recently opted to postpone returning lower-schoolers to buildings until 2021.

Hutchings, like peer superintendents in neighboring school divisions, warned school board members on Monday that the worst is yet to come. He said the pandemic appears to be entering its most deadly period, and said his priority will remain preserving the health and safety of staff and students.

Some board members asked him to cite specific health metrics that show Alexandria is seeing an increased virus caseload and risk of transmission. Hutchings replied that he is carefully watching the number of new cases per 100,000 people in the city over the past 14 days, as well as the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive in the city over the past 14 days.

Because the former statistic had risen above 200, and the latter above 10 percent, “that indicates we’re at the highest risk of transmission in our schools,” Hutchings said.

This holds true even though Alexandria has seen no cases among the six students so far returned to school, he said. He pointed out that some Alexandria personnel have tested positive for the virus, and that that number — which he did not give — has gone up alarmingly in recent weeks.

Moreover, health metrics are not the only barrier to return, the superintendent told the board — another key issue is staff willingness to teach in-person.

The school system recently completed a survey of all of its roughly 2,600 personnel, including 1,290 classroom teachers. The survey, which drew a 100 percent response rate, revealed that just 55 percent of staff overall reported they are willing to return and work in-person. That statistic also held true among classroom teachers as a subgroup: Just 55 percent said they would returning to buildings.

Employees unwilling to come back cited a variety of reasons, but the most popular was “Fear/Anxiety,” which 31 percent of staffers chose. The next-most popular was “Underlying Medical Conditions,” which 21 percent chose, followed by “Caring for a family member” (15 percent) and “Childcare” (11 percent).

Hutchings and a team of staffers pointed to these statistics in arguing that a delay of in-person learning was unavoidable.

“For us to open our buildings we have to have staffing,” he said. “Can’t have kids without staffing.”

Although the effort to return children to classrooms is on pause, Hutchings said, staffers will continue to develop plans for the eventual pivot to a hybrid form of learning in which the school system will offer in-person and virtual classes simultaneously. To further that goal, he debuted one possible strategy for hybrid instruction on Monday: the “concurrent model,” in which classroom teachers educate in-person kids and virtual students at the same time, by beaming a live video of the classroom out to remote learners.

Hutchings and a team of staffers walked board members through the advantages of this model — including easier scheduling for students — and its drawbacks, such as the fact it can “create gaps in learning based on environment,” according to the slide show Hutchings presented to the board.

To make this model work, Alexandria would also need to spend an additional $5,000 per month improve its Internet access, as well as somewhere between $300,000 to $400,000 to buy and install the necessary classroom cameras and other accessories. Hutchings said cameras could be purchased with Cares Act funding.

The superintendent emphasized that the school system has not yet chosen a model for hybrid instruction. Concurrent learning is one option — but another under consideration is the “Mini Academies” program, in which every school hosts two miniature academies, one comprising in-person teachers and students, one comprising virtual teachers and students. Still another is the “Rotational Model,” in which students rotate between in-person and virtual learning as building capacity dictates, while teachers remain strictly face-to-face or online.

Hutchings said he and his team will use the coming weeks to explore the positives and negatives of each option before making a final decision, with board input.

“The discussion in the education world [has been], ‘Why not just pivot into concurrent teaching?,’ ” he said. “And our thing was, we didn’t want to just pivot into concurrent teaching without exploring what that really was.”

In the immediate, Hutchings said, school officials will personally notify every single one of the six families that had begun in-person learning of the switch back to remote school. And the school system will hold a Zoom session for the more than 100 families that had been slated to come back to school on Nov. 3o.

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