ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WDVM) — When school went virtual last spring, Alexandria City Public School teachers unplugged their Chromebooks and handed them out to their students, expecting to only be home for a few weeks. “Fortunately, we have Chromebooks for students in grades three through 12,” said Chief Technology Officer Elizabeth Hoover. “Grades six through 12 were used to taking them home and that was already part of the program.”
The City of Alexandria is home to many families who need technological support. In 2004, ACPS launched its “one-to-one” program. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the school system had 500 internet hotspots (with educational filters) for students to check out. During the shutdown, staff discovered they didn’t have nearly enough.
“What we [learned] is that a lot of our students were just using their phones as a mobile hotspot for their laptop,” Hoover said. “But you can’t do that when you are Zooming and doing that all day long. So the need really changed quickly for us.” In April, ACPS purchased 700 additional hotspots, which were shipped directly to families. It also launched a “virtual help desk” for troubleshooting.
Once the shutdown was lifted, ACPS opened a help desk at T.C. Williams High School. It encouraged students and families to bring their technology ahead of the first day of school. “I’m relieved that we don’t have the challenges of being a total virtual help desk. We have an aspect of it but we can provide some in-person support, which is a game changer for a lot of our families,” Hoover said. “The relationship with the teacher, the relationship with the school, is one of the strongest that some students have in their lives and so there’s a level of trust and supports that schools provide our families, especially in this really fragile time in all of our lives.”
More than 5,000 devices were delivered to families in time for the first day of school on September 8. The school system succeeded in getting over 16,000 students online for class as part of the “Virtual PLUS+” school year. ACPS says it was “generally smooth sailing,” and that might’ve been thanks in part to the virtual summer school program it hosted in July.
“What that allowed us to do, which we had never done before, was start up a program virtually and that had its own set of challenges. I’m actually really glad we had that experience,” Hoover said. The school system expanded its summer school offerings to students who fell behind during the spring semester.
“Schools have always been a place to learn,” Hoover said. “Now our digital learning environment is a place that students are learning, staff is learning, and families are learning.”