The nearly 600 students in Arlington Public Schools’ virtual-learning program may have come away from the Feb. 17 School Board meeting feeling abandoned by school-system leadership.
But those leaders said the more appropriate long-term strategy is not to continue a flawed educational model, but to put it on hold for a year and retool it for the future, despite the short-term disruption that will cause.
Board members voted 4-0 to approve a recommendation from Superintendent Francisco Durán for a “pause” for a school year in what has become known as the “VLP.”
Students who wish to continue in a virtual-learning environment, and can provide authorization from a medical provider that it is necessary, will be able to enroll in a state-government program for the 2022-23 school year.
Some students might be eligible for homebound services from the county school system, depending on their specific circumstances.
That was not good enough for some of the parents with children in the program. Although it got off to a very rocky start at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, the VLP has served as a lifeline for some students, many of them with learning or health challenges, they said.
Among those speaking out at the SchoolBoard meeting was Maria Andrea Alvarez, who recently enrolled her 7-year-old twins in the program after they suffered anxiety from being in an in-person environment during the pandemic.
“Do not kill this initiative,” she pleaded, as doing so would result in “taking away a flexible education opportunity.”
(She and other speakers criticized the timing of the vote, coming just two weeks after Durán made the proposal public. Whether intentional or not, that quick turnaround made it effectively impossible for VLP proponents to mobilize the broader school community to support their cause.)
School Board members Barbara Kanninen, David Priddy, Cristina Diaz-Torres and Mary Kadera voted to eliminate the virtual-learning program for the coming year, with hopes of restarting it in the fall of 2023. Board member Reid Goldstein was absent from the meeting and the vote.
Diaz-Torres called the vote the toughest of her tenure, and acknowledged that a virtual-learning option was needed, but said the existing program simply was not delivering for participating students.
“In hindsight, we can look around and see many mistakes that were made,” she said. “Our vision did not match our capabilities, our intent did not match our impact.”
Financial considerations may also play a role, as federal funding supporting the online-learning effort will not be forthcoming in the future.
The vote to put the initiative on hiatus drew condemnation from the Arlington branch of the NAACP, which said it was the latest failing of an effort that has been “fundamentally flawed since its inception.”
“Families have reported feeling misled about hiring, readiness, staffing, timelines, instructional models and intentions for the program to be a permanent part of APS’s educational landscape,” the civil-rights organization said, noting that the school system has still not made up for instructional time lost by students during the rocky first month of the school year, when many could not access their teachers or coursework online.
Perhaps the most curious vote on the proposal came from Kadera, who serves as School Board liaison to the VLP program and spent much of the meeting criticizing the school-system leadership, which she said had not made the case to back up its recommendation to shut it down for a year.
“The burden of proof must be on APS to explain why such a disruption is necessary, and back up those claims,” Kadera said, criticizing “selective” use of that data that “does not offer a true apples-to-apples comparison” between achievement of virtual-learning students vs. their in-person-learning peers.
“We need a full and clear accounting,” Kadera said. “APS has not been able to communicate a coherent rationale why it needs to pause this program.”
But pause it, she ultimately voted to do.
What would a controversial Arlington Public Schools topic be without a task force empaneled to bring forward recommendations at some future date? School Board members set up the framework for one to study the matter and report back by December.
“We really have to put some deep thought into how to do this well,” said Kanninen.
Kanninen, who occupies the only School Board seat on the ballot in November, is not seeking re-election, leaving the field wide open for a successor and, potentially, providing an opening for virtual-learning supporters to get into the fray, either as part of the Democratic caucus in the spring or the general election in the fall.
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The heated reaction to the proposal and the criticism of both its intent and its timing also might cause Durán to consider his use of the word “pause” in public discourse. The superintendent used the same word to describe his decision not to allow Arlington student-athletes to compete for the first two weeks of 2022.
That action that drew wide derision both inside the school community and in jurisdictions ringing Arlington, and ended up being scrapped early.