For weeks, Filadelfia Soto—along with hundreds of other teachers in Albemarle County—was left in the dark. She had received emails with “general information about school board meetings,” but nothing about how the school division planned to reopen in the fall, or when teachers could weigh in on the issue.
So when division staff rolled out three reopening scenarios—all allowing students to return to classrooms for face-to-face learning—at a July 9 school board meeting, she was as surprised as she was disappointed.
“They went from moving the opening date from August to September…and then all of a sudden they said we are reopening schools face-to-face,” says Soto, who teaches Spanish at Woodbrook Elementary School. When she heard the plans, she felt like she had no choice but to participate in risky in-person learning.
More than 600 teachers—nearly half of those in the division—share Soto’s sentiments, and signed an open letter criticizing their exclusion from the planning process, as well as a lack of consideration for their needs and concerns. Pointing to the rising coronavirus rates in the area, they believe the proposed face-to-face models are “unequivocally unsafe,” and have urged the school board to reopen schools virtually.
“Virtual is not the ideal learning environment for all students, but we must begin there. The rising rates of illness and death across Virginia and nationally do not make me feel confident entering into a building,” says Adrienne Oliver, an instructional coach for ACPS. “We need to begin there also because we’re going to end up there in some capacity.”
Oliver and her colleagues also believe face-to-face learning puts marginalized communities, specifically those of color, in greater danger.
“It will be our most well-resourced families who opt their children out of that learning environment because they have the means. Which means you’ll then have school buildings that are filled with students who depend upon the resources that the school system can provide for them,” says Oliver, who is Black.
“Black and Latinx people…are [disproportionately] dying from this illness. To have a school that could potentially be filled with vulnerable students in any capacity places the burdens of the illness upon them,” Oliver says.
In response to community backlash, the district sent out a survey to teachers on July 10, asking them for their thoughts about reopening, and if they’d like to be part of a reopening task force. And on July 14, Superintendent Matt Haas announced he would draft an online-only option for the school board to consider at its July 30 meeting, when a final decision will be made.
But there is still a lot more equity work to be done, teachers say. Though ACPS sent out a survey to families last month, asking them if they preferred a hybrid or online reopening, the response rate was only 50 percent, says instructional coach Dr. Vicki Hobson.
“The voices of our most marginalized families…need to be central in the decisions that affect them. We need to find out what it is that they want and need, and how we can support that,” adds Hobson.
“We also need to consider how we’re asking for information. Some families don’t have access to devices or the internet in order to respond to an online survey,” she says. “We need to [have] alternative ways to get information, such as personalized phone calls with those we haven’t heard back from.”
In addition to contacting every family, the district should hear from all staff members, as well as community members and organizations, Oliver says.
Though distance learning did not go well for her eighth grader in the spring, parent Amanda Moxham believes that a virtual reopening is safest.
“We’ve been paying attention to the data locally around the number of cases and increases, and looking at the spikes across the country. And knowing that so many students will be returning to UVA this fall, there are [a lot of] dangers that exist,” says Moxham, who is a community organizer for the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County. “I don’t want to contribute to forcing teachers back into a physical school building who are not comfortable being there…[or] to increasing case numbers.”
Moxham is hopeful that teachers will be able to create a more effective distance learning model, such as by implementing live classes, before school starts on September 8, but is also frustrated with the district’s lack of outreach.
“What could have saved a huge amount of time was…[if] they had actually talked to the teachers first,” she says.
For the students who cannot learn from home, the district could work with community members and organizations to create alternative, yet safe learning options, suggests Moxham. For example, it could assign certain teachers a small group of students, and allow them to teach at outdoor locations.
But regardless of the school board’s decision, the district needs to figure out “how to make virtual learning equitable,” says Hobson. It should not only gather feedback from families about their experience with it in the spring, but also train teachers, set up more Wi-Fi hot spots, and distribute more laptops.
“We have a chance to do so much better than the virtual learning that we provided in the spring,” adds Oliver. “We see this as an opportunity to shift educational practice for the better.”