An audit of Arlington Public Schools’ calamitous start to its virtual-learning program (“VLP”) during the 2021-22 school year was about as damning as expected, with school-system leadership responding to it by accepting some blame but also suggesting they did the best they could under trying circumstances.
John Mickevice, the school system’s internal auditor, delivered the report to School Board members on July 19, finding fault across the board with the VLP program’s management. Those failures directly and indirectly impacted the educational experience of students who for health reasons or other concerns did not want to come back to class in person in the fall of 2021, he suggested.
“There was insufficient or minimal ownership, leadership . . . stakeholder input, planning, risk assessment, pilot study and progress reports,” Mickevice told School Board members, summarizing 12 areas where the program had not delivered to the community.
Among the findings:
• The school system “lacked a formal project plan” to implement the program.
• Those leading the program provided “no timely feedback” to upper-level school leaders when things began to go south.
• There was not sufficient time given for staffing the program and training that staff.
“There’s didn’t appear to be a plan to ensure we were going to have all the people on board to do this,” Mickevice said, castigating the school system for maintaining a succession of hiring freezes even when it became clear there would need to be additional staff brought in.
When the school year began in late August 2021, the VLP was mired in chaos, a major leadership departure at its start and lack of effective communication between the school system and families of the roughly 3 percent of the student body that was participating in it. Some students were left rudderless for as much as a month or more, unable to access the education they were, by law, entitled to.
School Board members acknowledged the chaos as it unfolded during those weeks, and at least a few seemed chastened by the confirmation provided by Mickevice’s report.
“This is painful,” board member Mary Kadera said after the presentation.
But there also within the ranks of leadership was a degree of “what did you expect?”-ism.
“We knew then, going in, we were going to have some difficulties and challenges,” said Superintendent Francisco Durán, who laid some of the blame at the feet of evolving health conditions and state/federal regulations and guidance.
Time “was too short to really plan this program,” Durán said.
That was a view echoed by School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres, who over the past year has been one of the most vocal critics among board members of the failure of the program.
“We did not have the luxury of time, and we had an ever-changing environment,” she said on July 19.
That type of response didn’t go over well with the advocacy group Arlington Parents for Education.
“The School Board and superintendent received this information as if they were distant spectators to a car wreck, rather than some of the responsible actors whose conduct – or lack thereof – led directly to this failure,” the organization said.
The group surmised that the report would have been even more critical had it been conducted by an independent, outside source rather than a school-system staffer.
“For full accountability, we need an auditor who is not beholden to the [School] Board,” the parents’ group said.
In a move that was criticized by parents of some of the students who used the VLP program last year, School Board members voted to put it on hold for the 2022-23 school year to retool the initiative for the future. Students who wish to continue online learning, and meet criteria to do so, for the coming year are being shuffled to a state program.
If a local virtual-learning program does come back, the audit should be a reminder of how not to do it, Kadera said.
“It’s learning we can apply” to the future, she said.