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Alexandria Schools Stay Virtual
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Alexandria Schools Stay Virtual

Division to open fall semester online, then reevaluate in November.

After considering both hybrid and virtual options, the school division will begin its first quarter online and re-evaluate after the first nine weeks.

After considering both hybrid and virtual options, the school division will begin its first quarter online and re-evaluate after the first nine weeks. Graphic from Alexandria City Public Schools

Students will not return to school this fall. Instead, another several months of Zoom class discussions and online learning lie ahead.

The division’s “Virtual PLUS+” program includes support for kindergarten through second-grade students, a structured bell schedule, afterschool programs, college admissions support, live instruction from teachers and tutoring.

“After much careful consideration of the facts as they stand today, we feel confident that Virtual PLUS+ will provide a quality educational experience worthy of our children while keeping the health and safety of our students, staff and families in mind,” said Superintendent Gregory Hutchings. “This model places equitable access for all at the heart and ensures that we can build a framework that addresses the needs of specific groups of students to ensure they stay on course this fall.”

The district doesn’t plan to try to reopen schools. Instead, students will stay home and have several hours of live instruction and assignments for the first nine weeks. In November, school officials will reevaluate the pandemic situation and decide if it’s safe to move to in-person schooling.

THE DECISION was met with mixed feelings from students and teachers. Though some agree that the plan prioritizes students’ safety, many are concerned about beginning a new school year through screens.

“I’m absolutely terrified of trying to virtually teach 150 students I’ve never met while frantically trying to rewrite my science curriculum for a virtual environment,” said T.C. Williams physics teacher Laura Simons.

T.C. Williams senior Fina Osei-Owusu learned a lot from online learning during the last few months of her junior year. However, she’s not happy about starting her senior year virtually.

“I’m actually very disappointed,” said Osei-Owusu. “I feel like it takes away the joy of going to school and seeing your friends and actually having a social life outside your home. I feel like being at home and learning … is actually pretty draining doing it everyday.”

Despite her initial frustration with online learning back in March, T.C. Williams senior Kate Casper thinks a fall virtual reopening was the best option the administration could have come up with.

“I’m just glad ACPS came to this decision because if they had tried to do even half in-person, it would have been a huge equity issue and unfair to kids in neighborhoods that might be disproportionately affected by the virus,” said Casper.

Scheduling has yet to be finalized. At the high school level, school officials have suggested five hours in class with block scheduling. Classwork will be graded normally. How middle and high school students will be able to manage a full-online course load with multiple classes remains unknown. Even though the district was successful in quickly transitioning to online learning last school year, many students struggled to stay on track with classwork.

“I’m worried about my students being able to balance seven virtual classes at once,” said Simons. “I remember how stressed and overwhelmed they were last spring, and that was with teachers they knew and courses with which they were already familiar.”

AS FOR PARENTS with younger children, childcare options will be tough to navigate in the fall. The district says there will be childcare support, but it will look a lot different than before. Many childcare centers have closed. Now, parents depend on Zoom daycare sessions and other family members to keep their children occupied while they work.

Happy Home Child Learning Center, a prominent childcare service in Southern Towers, was among the few that has stayed open during the pandemic. Happy Home now predominantly serves essential workers and new clients have to go through a lengthy process to register new children.

Deborah Tillman, Happy Home’s CEO, prioritizes safety above all else. While the childcare center is open, children practice social distancing and everything is disinfected after every use. The total number of children was reduced from 53 to 40, with ten children in each room. For parents who can’t bring their children to the center, Happy Home provides video lessons for children, along with Zoom activities.

“If the parents are working virtually, obviously they can’t watch a seven-year-old all day. And a seven-year-old can’t sit in front of a computer all day because they still have to get outside,” said Tillman. “Let’s start thinking about how we can support families if they are at home and let’s start thinking about how we can support families if they have to go to work.”

The division will come out with more specific childcare details in the coming weeks. The plan will be submitted to the Virginia Department of Education on Aug. 14, after it’s presented to the School Board on Aug. 7.