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Staff Shortages Cause ‘Frustrating and Unacceptable’ Start to New APS Virtual Learning Program

(Updated 9:25 a.m. on 9/8/21) The new virtual learning program in Arlington Public Schools, available to anyone uncomfortable with going to school in-person, has gotten off to a rocky start due to severe teacher shortages.

During the first week of school, 340 of the more than 700 students enrolled in the program were assigned subs rather than permanent teachers, and many did not receive class schedules. Instead, many virtual students saw their classes canceled or they were shuffled into multi-grade classes and “virtual waiting rooms” without teachers or monitors.

And today (Tuesday), APS announced another upheaval: the administrator assigned to the new program, Verlese Gaither, has been replaced. Amy Jackson, Supervisor of Educational Technology & Programs, will lead the Virtual Learning Program until a new administrator is appointed.

Complaints started shortly after the first day of school. A discussion thread on a local parenting message board titled “APS VPL is a dumpster fire” has garnered more than 200 comments since it was first posted last Tuesday.

Parents of virtual students are also raising their concerns with the School Board and administrators, asking for appropriate staffing and improved communication. One of their requests — a meeting with APS — will be met with a town hall set for tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 7 p.m.

“The VLP is a critical program for vulnerable students and their families during this unprecedented pandemic,” Laura Haltzel, whose son is learning at home for health reasons, tells ARLnow. “Families want the virtual program to succeed and would like to work with APS to try to resolve some of the challenges we experienced in the last week. We believe that many problems can be solved with the appropriate allocation of teaching staff and administrative support.”

APS apologized in a School Talk email sent to families this afternoon.

“As we prepare to start the second week of school, we want to apologize for the challenges students encountered accessing their classes in the Virtual Learning Program last week,” the school system said. “We understand that this was a frustrating and unacceptable start to the school year for our VLP families and are working to ensure that these issues, related to staffing, scheduling, technical support and communication, are addressed as quickly as possible. We are also committed to ensuring that VLP students will have permanent teachers assigned to their classes as soon as possible.”

School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen likewise apologized and affirmed the board’s commitment to making the program work.

“I want to personally apologize to our VLP students and families,” she tells ARLnow. “Our goal is for the Virtual Learning Program to be an innovative, engaging, and rewarding academic experience for our students. The School Board is 100% committed to the program and we support the immediate steps APS is taking to ensure its success.”

Haltzel is part of a group of parents who wrote to administrators and School Board members on Monday outlining their concerns, which include a lack of staffing and a lack of communication.

“The combination of these above concerns, coupled with the silence from the APS School Board and Dr. Duran, has left VLP Parents concerned, frustrated and unsatisfied,” the group’s letter said. “Most critically, VLP students are demoralized and distraught.”

There are about 740 students enrolled in the VLP, including 63 students added since Aug. 16 via medical exemption appeals, a fluidity that APS says impacts staffing and class sizes.

With the changing class sizes and staffing shortages, some students were placed in courses through Virtual Virginia and other similar programs, while others were placed in a temporary classes to work on asynchronous assignments developed by APS teachers assigned to brick and mortar schools. These classes were monitored by an adult and students will receive feedback on their work from their teachers in September.

Families report incidents of online bullying between the younger and older unsupervised students in these mixed-grade “waiting rooms.” They say their younger students are upset and no longer enthusiastic about school.

Meanwhile, APS said in its email to parents today that it is committed to solving the teacher shortage quickly. As of Thursday, APS had 92 virtual teachers, but it still needed 106 teachers to fill out the program, a spokesman said. According to parents, some teachers initially assigned to the virtual program were later reassigned to teach in-person.

Parents say it wasn’t until they started asking questions that APS acknowledged that staffing was the problem.

“VLP initially reported that delays were due to Canvas technology, but later acknowledged insufficient teaching staff is the cause,” the letter said. “APS failed to acknowledge the challenges with, or even mention, the VLP Virtual Learning Program in the first APS ‘School Talk’ released last week.”

These problems are affecting a diverse group of students. Citing enrollment data from July, the letter said more than 80% of VLP students are people of color, 42% are learning English, and more than 21% are medically vulnerable or have disabilities.

Spanish-speaking families say the last week has been particularly confusing, as no communications went out in Spanish last week and they had no one to reach out to for more information. Meanwhile, students with disabilities — for whom staying home may be medically necessary — are facing a shortage of special education teachers and case managers, as well as a lack of support from their home schools.

“These VLP students are not receiving the federally-guaranteed equitable education and special education support services they are entitled to, especially when compared with in-person students,” the parents said in their letter. “There has been inconsistent messaging, communications, and coordination on the relationship between VLP students and their home schools.”

Arlington Parents for Education also weighed in. The group, which formed around advocating for in-person education, has previously criticized APS for allotting $11 million of Arlington’s American Rescue Plan funding, or 59%, to the program.

“It was, at best, a questionable decision (a decision taken solely by Dr. Duran and not voted on by the School Board) to create a virtual program from scratch,” the group said. “Nevertheless, we are here now and APS has an obligation to educate those kids. APE demands that APS address this situation immediately.”

The full School Talk email that was sent today is below.

Dear Virtual Learning Program Families,

As we prepare to start the second week of school, we want to apologize for the challenges students encountered accessing their classes in the Virtual Learning Program (VLP) last week. The goal of the VLP is to provide students with a full distance learning option that supports their academic success and social-emotional well-being, and we remain committed to the success of this program and the students enrolled in it. We understand that this was a frustrating and unacceptable start to the school year for our VLP families and are working to ensure that these issues, related to staffing, scheduling, technical support and communication, are addressed as quickly as possible. We are also committed to ensuring that VLP students will have permanent teachers assigned to their classes as soon as possible.

We have made some immediate staffing adjustments and are allocating additional resources and supports to strengthen the program. Moving forward, Amy Jackson, Supervisor of Educational Technology & Programs, will lead the program until a new administrator is appointed. Ms. Jackson has experience leading a virtual school and will be supported by retired APS principals with expertise in logistics, special education services and communication. Yvonne Dangerfield, VLP Assistant Administrator, will continue to address issues related to the delivery of instruction, and Ron Crouse, VLP Instructional Technology Coordinator (ITC), will continue to support staff and families with instructional technology problem-solving.

At this time, some secondary students may still have an incomplete schedule. Staff are in the process of finalizing student schedules, and students will be notified when their classes will begin. As students are assigned to classes, the Microsoft Teams links to these classes will be available on their Canvas homepage. Students with “Amy Jackson” listed as their assigned teacher for a specific course should see this information updated by Friday, September 10. In the meantime, they should use that period to work on assignments for other classes.

VLP families who desire to transition their students to in-person instruction can complete the Request to Transition to In-Person Program Form online. Once the request has been submitted, a staff member will contact families to confirm their request has been received. Please be advised that the timeframe to complete the transition process could take up to two weeks. Additional information on the transition process is available online.

APS is coordinating a virtual VLP Town Hall for tomorrow evening, Wed, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m., to discuss the plan moving forward and to answer questions from families. Details will be communicated with students and families tomorrow. Families are encouraged to visit the VLP Daily Updates webpage and follow the VLP Twitter account (@APSVLP) for the latest information. Students are also encouraged to check their emails daily for VLP information and updates. For additional information or questions, please contact 703-228-2471 or [email protected]

Sincerely,

Bridget Loft
Chief Academic Officer

(An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of students not assigned teachers. Additional information from APS has been added.)

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