Class in session: Teachers say in-person learning has been safe for special education

Albemarle County special education teachers say in-person learning has been a largely positive experience since school started on September 8. PC: Jack Looney Albemarle County special education teachers say in-person learning has been a largely positive experience since school started on September 8. PC: Jack Looney

After months of debate, the Albemarle County School Board decided in July to hold the first nine weeks of classes with distance learning for most students. One exception to the mandate was made for students with special needs.

The decision immediately stirred up controversy and concern, with many community members believing face-to-face instruction was not only unsafe, but unfair to test out on vulnerable populations of students. “To have a school that could potentially be filled with vulnerable students in any capacity places the burdens of the illness upon them,” ACPS instructional coach Adrienne Oliver told C-VILLE in July.

But for at least two special education teachers in the district, in-person learning has been a largely positive experience since school began September 8.

At Broadus Wood Elementary, Kimberly Hannis currently teaches four of her kindergarten-through-fifth-grade special ed students in person.

“There are so many different routines than last year, so I’ve had to take a step back, and rethink how to create a calm, supportive environment with clear expectations,” she says. “That’s been challenging, but we’re getting better and figuring it out together.”

Each student has separate workstations, books, toys, and other learning materials, which are sanitized regularly. Because there are very few students and staff inside of the building, she’s able to use multiple rooms for teaching.

Taylor Aylor, who teaches special education for grades nine through 12, also has just four students in her classroom at Monticello High School, allowing them to safely distance from each other.

Though it has not been easy getting students acclimated to all the new rules and practices, both teachers say that masks have surprisingly not been an issue.

“I thought my kids were going to do awful with wearing their masks and sanitizing. These are kids where…there is no such thing as a bubble,” says Aylor. “[But] they have been complying, and are leaving their masks on.”

Both teachers also have students whose specific needs require remote learning. With the help of teaching assistants, they’ve been able to balance the individualized needs of the two groups, and create a structured routine that helps them “thrive,” says Aylor.

At the beginning of each school day, Aylor hosts a class Zoom meeting, allowing her 10 students learning from home to socialize with those inside the classroom. She then works with her in-person students alongside four teaching assistants, while another special ed teacher—also with support from TAs—does live classes with those who are learning virtually.

Hannis also has four TAs in her classroom, who assist students with their work whenever she is not working with them. At scheduled times, she teaches the same content during live classes with her two students learning from home, and assigns work for them to do on their own.

Throughout the school day, students participate in virtual classes with their homeroom, “depending on what’s appropriate for them,” says Hannis.

The decision to teach students in person was not easy for Hannis. But because she is “young and doesn’t have high risk people around [her]” at home, she felt more comfortable doing so.

Aylor has a 4-year-old daughter, and at first didn’t think she’d return to the classroom.

“I knew that my daughter needed to go back into a daycare setting, even if I was going to be doing virtual, just to make sure I’m giving my undivided attention to the kids,” she says. “So [eventually] I was like, I’m going to go in. I’m not just going to submit my daughter to exposure…and me stay at home.”

“And now since the first day coming back, it’s just been like ‘Whoa, that wasn’t as scary as I thought,’” she says.

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Back so soon?

Though the Charlottesville School Board voted to start the first nine weeks of classes virtually, students could be returning to the classroom sooner than expected.

City school officials have shared a reopening plan with the district’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee that would allow preschool through second-grade students to participate in face-to-face classes beginning on October 13, nearly four weeks earlier than initially planned.

Other groups would soon follow: third through fifth graders would return on October 20, and sixth grade and up would go back on October 27.

All families could still opt into virtual learning.

This change still needs to be discussed, revised, and approved by the committee.

Since the proposed plan was announced in an email to families last week, the division has faced backlash from teachers, parents, and even school board members, who feel it is unsafe and unnecessary amidst rising COVID cases in the area.

“We voted to go virtual for the first nine weeks and develop thoughtful criteria for how and when we return to in-person learning, and this change in direction by Dr. Atkins is unacceptable,” tweeted board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger. “We made a plan and gave our word; we voted on it! We have to stick to the plan.”

The committee will make a recommendation to the Charlottesville School Board on October 8. Albemarle’s school board will also meet that day, and is expected to hear several reopening options for the next quarter.

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