After weeks of discussion and debate, the verdict is in: Charlottesville City Schools will reopen virtually for all students, while Albemarle County will allow a limited selection of students to participate in in-person learning. Both districts finalized their decisions at school board meetings on Thursday.
During the division’s virtual meeting, ACPS staff detailed the division’s five stages of reopening. Superintendent Matt Haas recommended the board approve the second stage for the first nine weeks of school. Most students will begin the year learning online only, but the plan makes an exception for students with inadequate internet access that cannot be improved, those with special needs who cannot fulfill their individual education plans at home, and English learners with low proficiency levels in fourth through 12th grades.
These students—an estimated 1,000 to 1,500—will be put into pods of 10 or fewer, and paired with a learning coach, who will assist them with their online coursework. Everyone will be required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing within the school buildings, which will be regularly cleaned and disinfected, among other mitigation measures. Bus service will be provided for families who request it.
All students and staff members coming into the school buildings will be doing so voluntarily, Haas emphasized throughout the meeting.
In the coming week, Albemarle will release more details on how it’s revamping virtual learning, which will include both asynchronous and synchronous coursework, and what actions it will take if a student or staff member involved in in-person instruction contracts COVID-19.
Ahead of Charlottesville’s virtual meeting, Superintendent Rosa Atkins recommended that the board approve an all-virtual model for the first nine weeks of school, pointing toward the rising cases and positivity rate in the area and many remaining unanswered safety questions. She emphasized that virtual learning in the fall would greatly differ from the experience offered in the spring, and would include a variety of new features, from social-emotional learning to peer engagement.
Both divisions will revisit their decisions in the middle of the first quarter to evaluate whether they will move forward with reopening, or stay in the same phase for the next school quarter.
Though all classes will be online, Charlottesville plans to host individual in-person, socially-distanced meet-and-greets with teachers, which students and their families will sign up for. Additionally, it is possible that a small number of students in great need of in-person instruction will be grouped into pods, and have classes in outdoor settings, said Atkins.
About 200 families in Charlottesville have indicated they need child care, she added. The division is working with community partners—including the Boys & Girls Club, Piedmont Family YMCA, and City of Promise—to figure out how to best provide assistance. Students could participate in virtual learning while at a child care center.
Feelings about virtual reopening were mixed in the county. Board members Judy Le and Ellen Osborne emphasized the various risks of in-person learning and lack of solid data on how the virus transmits between children, and preferred to start with stage one, or all-virtual classes.
“I just don’t feel like I can put our most vulnerable students into the middle of a grand experiment, and have them take that home to their communities,” said Osborne.
However, board member Katrina Callsen expressed concern for the families she has heard from who are unable to adequately participate in distance learning, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds.
The board initially did not agree to reopen under stage two, with members David Oberg and Graham Paige siding with Le and Osborne against the plan. However, Oberg changed his mind after a 10 minute break, and voted to approve it, along with Callsen, Jonno Alcaro, and Kate Acuff.
Albemarle parents and staff were also split on reopening plans, per the division’s latest surveys. Out of nearly 7,000 responses, 71 percent of parents ranged from “somewhat” to “extremely” concerned about sending their student to school for in-person learning in the fall, but 67 percent preferred that the division adopt a hybrid reopening model.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of staff respondents did not feel comfortable returning to the classroom.
If the pandemic worsens in the area—especially after UVA students return—Haas has the authority to revert the division all the way back to stage one without approval from the board.
While the Charlottesville School Board’s vote approving an all-virtual reopening was unanimous, results from a phone and web survey were split. A majority of staff (about 60 percent) preferred an all-virtual reopening, but families showed nearly equivalent support for face-to-face and online-only learning.
During public comment, most speakers advocated for a hybrid model, particularly for younger students and those from marginalized backgrounds.
“There is no clear consensus among families about the best path forward…I’m not sure why we are straying from the multipath system that was first designed,” said Richard Feero, who works for Abundant Life Ministries and lives in the Prospect community. “Choosing an all-virtual path to start the school year punishes working-class, predominantly Black and brown families in the city….Why not just give this small segment the option to have their children attend school in-person?”
During its school board meeting on August 6, Charlottesville staff will give a presentation with more details on how it will implement distance learning for students in special education, ESL, and preschool.
Albemarle’s next meeting is scheduled for August 13.