Arlington Public Schools leaders say they have triaged some of the most pressing fallout from a rocky rollout of the new online-learning initiative, but still have steps to take to ensure the program meets its promises to students and their families.
“We have had a lot of regretful growing pains – that has been bad,” frustrated School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said after an Oct. 14 update on the situation.
School staff and leaders, she said, need to be “doing everything we can to get this back on track as quickly as possible.”
The county school system offered families the option of five-day-a-week online learning for the 2021-22 school year. As of mid-October, enrollment in the Virtual Learning Program, or VLP, stood at 630, or about 2.4 percent of the school system’s K-12 enrollment.
Many of those students have pressing needs and are likely among those most left in the lurch by more than a year of limited schooling after the local district reacted to COVID by abandoning in-person classroom instruction starting in March 2020:
• Nearly 40 percent of VLP students are English-language learners.
• One in four are special-education students.
• Sixty percent come from low-income families.
School leaders acknowledge that the late-August rollout of the program was somewhere between chaotic and calamitous, with many students unable to access live (“synchronous”) classroom instruction from home. Significant percentages of students at all grade levels are having recurring problems along the same line, school leaders acknowledged.
“It’s taken us some time to start addressing these concerns. It’s regrettable [that] we’ve had so many issues,” said School Board member Monique O’Grady, the board’s liaison to the online-learning initiative.
Some good news: County school leaders have hired a principal to oversee the program. Danielle Harrell, previously director of educational programs at the Women’s Education Alliance in Maryland, takes over on Oct. 25.
Most teacher-staffing issues also have been wrangled under control, using retired educators combined with new hires.
“The recruitment challenges are now, we hope, solved,” School Board member Reid Goldstein said.
With personnel in place, “we need to now ensure that staff is providing the education needs that our students deserve,” O’Grady said.
Among them: School officials say virtual-learning students will have opportunities, such as extracurriculars, provided by their base schools, but it hasn’t always worked out that way. At least one student in the VLP was told he couldn’t attend his base school’s homecoming because he wasn’t a student there.
That type of incident is a “really regretful growing pain,” said Bridget Loft, the school system’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
“We’re working diligently so we don’t repeat that,” she said.
A number of School Board members attempted to separate the rocky rollout, now in its third month, from the efforts of staff working to provide online education. Their work is “so incredibly valued,” Diaz-Torres said.
At the same time, Diaz-Torres said school-system bureaucrats need to come up with a concrete strategy to make up for the months of learning some students in the program have lost, including extensive tutoring and small-group instruction.
“Do whatever it takes to make this happen,” she told Superintendent Francisco Durán.