Arlington, VA

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) Arlington Public Schools is holding off on teaching new material until the fall, a decision that has raised the ire of some parents — and now one candidate for School Board.

APS made the announcement over spring break that fourth quarter material would be held until September, “as part of our commitment to ensuring equity of access to new learning for all students.” Instead, following the closure of all Virginia schools for the remainder of the academic year, students are engaging in distance learning that reinforces existing concepts.

In an email to supporters, School Board candidate Steven Krieger said that’s the wrong move.

The APS decision to stop teaching new content for most courses for the remainder of the school year and propose a vastly diminished schedule for younger students was provided without adequate justification.

APS rationalized this decision by claiming it will ensure equitable learning outcomes. Why does APS believe that “equitable” means settling for no new instructional content? Our schools should be focused on finding opportunities and solutions for ALL of our students to excel through distance learning — including students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Teaching nothing new to all students is equal, but not equitable.

Instead of following the guidance of the Virginia Department of Education and exploring every possible innovation and solution to offer an equitable learning experience to all students, regardless of their needs, the school district decided not to introduce any new material.

I wholeheartedly commend our dedicated teachers who are ready to teach our children new material. We shouldn’t punish their hard work by forcing them to spend valuable time next school year making up for lost time now. We shouldn’t add to student stress by forcing them to learn more content in less time next year.

Schools across the country are teaching new material. Arlington should be more transparent about why we cannot do the same or find a way to provide equitable education to all students instead of using equity as an excuse to avoid introducing new material.

Among nearby school systems, Alexandria worked to ensure that all secondary students have laptops and school-provided wireless internet access, if they didn’t already have internet access at home, to make sure they could participate in online classes.

Fairfax County attempted a more robust distance learning curriculum, but major technical and security problems resulted in a fiasco and yesterday’s resignation of a top school official.

Contacted by ARLnow, the four other candidates for the Democratic School Board endorsement, now being conducted via mail, were more understanding of the APS decision.

“Arlington Public Schools’ decision to not introduce new material this quarter aligns with recommended best practice and is what most districts are doing across the country,” wrote Cristina Diaz-Torres. “This choice allows teachers and staff time to build the foundational skills necessary for students to recover and thrive next year while avoiding placing additional stress on students and families.”

“That said, I believe now is the best time to build the district’s capacity to deliver quality distance instruction that is equitable and at scale for the fall,” she added, hinting at worries that students may not be able to return to classrooms in the fall should a second wave of infections happen.

“As we can observe from the experiences in Fairfax County, this isn’t easy,” said another candidate, Sandy Munnell, a long-time APS teacher. “Teachers, students and families each need training, practice and facilities to make distance learning on this scale successful. Presentation of content is different than in a classroom, pacing of instruction is different, feedback and interaction is different — everything is at least a little unfamiliar for everyone. So there is a certain logic to starting with the familiar.”

“I know that APS’ decision to not teach new material via its distance learning program was not an easy one,” said Terron Sims, adding that he believes technological access played a role in the decision. “There was no plan for a crisis of this magnitude, and to be fair, how could there have been.”

“Keep in mind that students in our community have different access, learn in different ways, and have different levels of parent involvement depending upon their work situation,” echoed David Priddy. “As a parent, I also understand our collective desire to keep our children’s education moving forward. However, it is important that we are flexible, patient and continue to communicate as we figure out our ‘new normal.'”

Krieger, meanwhile, said that the APS decision is emblematic of what he wants to change in the school system.

“It is decisions like this and the lack of transparency which motivated me to run for School Board,” he said. “APS routinely makes decisions which neither prioritize our most vulnerable students nor serve as pragmatic solutions for the school system.”

The full responses from the other School Board candidates are below, after the jump.

Terron Sims

COVID-19 took every school district by surprise. There was no plan for a crisis of this magnitude, and to be fair, how could there have been. Everyday, especially when the pandemic began, information constantly changed. COVIID-19 went from a punchline to what we know it to be today — a serious matter. I know that APS’ decision to not teach new material via its distance learning program was not an easy one. I can ascertain that several variables came into play when making said decision, primarily full technological access by both the students and the teachers. Crisis tends to be the mother of innovation. Now is the time that we as a community work together in developing new and unique means of functioning, and in the case of APS, educating our students.

David Priddy

I understand that relying exclusively on distance learning is an adjustment for everyone. Distance learning is a supplement, and is not meant to duplicate what is done in each classroom with the quality and variety of instruction that our teachers deliver. Please also keep in mind that students in our community have different access; learn in different ways; and have different levels of parent involvement depending upon their work situation. As a result, the lesson plans and time spent are naturally reduced while learning from home.

As a parent, I also understand our collective desire to keep our children’s education moving forward.  However, it is important that we are flexible, patient and continue to communicate as we figure out our “new normal.” APS has been and continues to be the highest rated school system in Virginia. I am confident that with our continued feedback, that our educators will come up with an optimal instructional program over the summer to keep us at the forefront when school resumes in the fall.

Sandy Munnell

This question has a number of dimensions.

First, the APS decision on continuity of learning is consistent with the Virginia Department of Education guidelines on the continuity of learning.

As we can observe from the experiences in Fairfax County, this isn’t easy. Teachers, students and families each need training, practice and facilities to make distance learning on this scale successful. Presentation of content is different than in a classroom, pacing of instruction is different, feedback and interaction is different — everything is at least a little unfamiliar for everyone. So there is a certain logic to starting with the familiar, going deeper into content, reinforcing key concepts and exploring tangents of interest to our children. While we will all get better at distance learning, it is unrealistic to think we could do a proper job on new content for all our students.

Having said that, the partnership between families and schools has never been more important than it is now. If a parent wants more enrichment for their child, they should contact the school. Beyond just the teacher, the school librarian can suggest grade appropriate books and materials. The school Instructional Technology Coordinator (ITC) can suggest online resources. “Student centered learning” is more than just educator jargon now — the school can help your child explore their interests.

Lastly, I am afraid that this crisis is really going to put the inequities in our communities in a whole new light. As we are forced to “reinvent” school, we will need to address the challenges of access and support which impede the success of some of our children.

Cristina Diaz-Torres

Arlington Public Schools’ decision to not introduce new material this quarter aligns with recommended best practice and is what most districts are doing across the country. This choice allows teachers and staff time to build the foundational skills necessary for students to recover and thrive next year while avoiding placing additional stress on students and families. That said, I believe now is the best time to build the district’s capacity to deliver quality distance instruction that is equitable and at scale for the fall. If school closures continue into the fall, our teachers and staff need to be prepared to deliver new content to all students. Now is the time for teachers and staff to figure out which content delivery systems are best suited for a new normal (e.g. recording videos, holding Microsoft Teams office hours, collaborating with AIM to deliver instruction via Youtube, etc.) and for the district to flesh out procedures for virtual attendance monitoring, grading, and ensuring essential student services. I support APS’ decision to focus on reviewing curriculum this quarter and believe the time must be spent coming up with a plan to support our students no matter the challenges they may face next fall.

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