Beginning next month, Albemarle County Public Schools will bring kindergarten through third grade students back to classrooms for in-person instruction two days a week. That’s frustrated some teachers who maintain that the safety concerns outweigh potential benefits. Meanwhile, off-site learning centers aim to assist with childcare by hosting virtual learning.
As local schools began the fall semester virtually, many area parents struggled to balance their jobs and remote learning. Some paid to enroll their children in small learning pods, while others hired private tutors to work with their kids one-on-one. And those with the means opted out of public school entirely, and enrolled their students in private schools with in-person instruction.
Now, a recently founded Richmond-based company called Direct Learning Solutions is opening a new learning center for elementary schoolers participating in virtual classes. Located at the former Travinia Italian Kitchen site in Stonefield, the center will start off with three facilitators and 30 students, explains Executive Director Robin Lawson. But if demand goes up, it can safely accommodate 20 more students, along with two additional facilitators.
Beginning November 1, families will be able to send their child to the center for virtual learning and after-school care for $150 per week. Families who do not need after-school care will pay $100.
That $400-$600 a month is no small thing for cash-strapped families, but “We are partnering with [Arc of the Piedmont], so we can take donations, and families who cannot afford this service at all will have corporate sponsors that…pay for this service for them,” says CEO Samuel Anderson.
Several other community organizations—including Abundant Life Ministries, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Piedmont Family YMCA—have also opened up virtual learning centers, but almost all are at capacity, and have long wait lists.
As Albemarle County Public Schools prepares to move to Stage 3, DLS anticipates even more families will need to send their students to virtual learning centers on the days they won’t be in the classroom.
But some Albemarle teachers feel the sudden expansion of in-person learning is still not safe. According to the district’s most recent survey, about 67 percent of teachers wanted to continue with virtual learning for the second quarter, compared to 40 percent of parents.
“If a staff member or student tests positive, who will be quarantined at home for two weeks? We’ve been given kind of vague information, like the students’ closest contacts [or] the students who have assigned seats right next to them, even though we know students move around,” says Michelle Drago, who teaches first grade at Stone-Robinson Elementary.
“[Students] are going to be allowed to play with each other at recess with masks, but they’re going to touch each other and be in each others’ faces. And they’re allowed to take their masks off obviously for lunch and snack,” she says.
Additionally, teachers have not been provided with all of the safety equipment they’ve requested, including face shields and gloves.
Stage 3 also puts students’ mental health further at risk, says Debbie Stollings, who teaches second grade at Agnor-Hurt Elementary. As certain students and teachers switch from all-virtual to hybrid learning, it is likely that some will be reassigned to different homerooms.
“This is another trauma we are putting on them during a pandemic,” she adds. “One way or the other, I’m going to lose some of my kids.”
And with all of the safety precautions they must take to do in-person learning, many teachers do not think it is possible to still provide high-quality instruction, full of beneficial activities like reading groups and partner games.
“I’m afraid no matter how many laps I make with my six-foot perimeter, I won’t know when somebody’s struggling because I can’t see their little faces like I’ve been able to see them before,” she says. But over Zoom, “we’re right in each others’ faces. Even if they’re not showing me their page of work, I can tell when they’re struggling.”
Teachers who did not feel safe going into the classroom had until October 15—less than a week after the school board meeting—to request accommodations, while families had to decide by the following day.
If Stollings is not allowed to teach virtually, she says she will have no choice but to retire, even though she is not ready to. The only other options for teachers are to resign, or take a leave of absence.
Stallings fears even more for her fellow teachers who may be forced into the classroom, including Drago. With her three young children, Drago cannot afford to quit her job. (Her husband is also a teacher, so they are unable to support their household with just his income.)
The two teachers—along with many of their colleagues—ultimately wish the school board had gone the same route as Charlottesville City Schools, whose COVID-19 advisory committee recommended continuing virtual learning until January.
“My problem is with my immune system,” says Stollings, who has been a teacher for 31 years. “My doctor said…COVID probably won’t kill you but it will make you really sick for a really long time. And of course, you could always die.”