The coronavirus pandemic hit home for Jessica Taylor when Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the state’s K-12 schools to close for two weeks.
“I still remember that gut punch of the governor announcing we were closing on the 13th,” said Taylor, a first-grade teacher at Clark Elementary and president of the Charlottesville Education Association. “I remember so vividly just an audible gasp that I couldn’t believe that could actually happen … At that time, it was unfathomable that schools would be closed.”
Northam’s Friday, March 13, 2020 order capped a week in which cancellations, closures and other disruptions to what was then normal life steadily increased as the pandemic started to take hold. The first positive case of COVID-19 in the Blue Ridge Health District was announced March 16. Ten days after his initial order, Northam canceled the rest of the academic year.
Taylor said that she was initially worried that her students would think that she had disappeared or chosen not to be with them. So she would take videos of herself on morning walks around a lake in her neighborhood and point out the different animals.
“Just sort of trying to pull them into my life as much as possible,” she said. “Because at that point, we really hadn’t done any of the curricular work, and we really hadn’t done any of that initial legwork to get all the kids doing classes on Zoom. It was more like, make sure they’re connected, and make sure you’re reaching out and touching base with families every week. So making sure they knew that I was still there was so important.”
After adjusting to the new normal of online school, she said there was “terrifying relief” in going to school in-person. Earlier this week, Taylor welcomed students back to her classroom for the first time since in 12 months and had the chance to see her former first-graders in-person.
“And it is so amazing how big they are,” she said. “They seem so happy to be back at school.”
The year since that closure has forced students and teachers to adapt to virtual schooling and face new challenges that previously were unheard of, upending every aspect of education. In a month, public schools had distributed computers and WiFi hotspots to students and launched an online school system while also figuring out how to engage families and honor the Class of 2020.
Schools and community groups rallied to meet families’ basic needs, distributing thousands of meals. For this school year, nonprofits opened virtual learning centers to help children and support working families.
School Board meetings moved to the video-conference application, Zoom, making the meetings more accessible to the community. Many more parents and teachers spoke out during public comment as the boards wrestled with how and whether to reopen schools.
Early on in that reopening process, teachers worked together to write open letters and make their voices heard. They worried about their health and safety if in-person classes started too soon. The Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions started the year online because of those concerns and others.
“Teachers are finding the courage to say out loud: this is what we need. We need to be able to be safe at work, and acknowledging that it’s okay to say no,” Taylor said. “That doesn’t mean we love the kids any less or that we take any less pride in our jobs. We just want to be treated with respect and value.”
As CEA president, Taylor said she took pride over the last year representing fellow teachers’ interests and checking in to make sure they were OK. It was also the most difficult period of her tenure as CEA president.
“I tell my kids that mistakes are proof that you tried something, and that your brain grew, and this year absolutely was proof of that to me,” she said.
Parents responded to the closure with open letters and petitions of their own, inundating board members with emails.
Vaccines and significant investments in school buildings paved the way for in-person classes to begin for local students this month, though some area school divisions have offered in-person as an option since August.
Albemarle County and Charlottesville schools kicked off the year with online classes Sept. 8. Since then, students have had several "first days" of school as the divisions incrementally opened up classes to more groups.
Taylor said her focus the first week back was on students’ emotional state and teaching them the new routines and protocols of pandemic-era schooling — wearing a mask, not sharing glue sticks and staying six feet from each other.
“Because even coming back, as exciting as it is, can have some residue on it from what they’ve experienced,” she said. “Kids are missing. Some of their friends aren’t here. I’m not the teacher they may have started the year with. All of those things have lingering questions in six-year-old brains.”
Erin Kershner, principal at Venable Elementary, said she was thrilled to have students back in the building. Preschoolers through sixth-graders in Charlottesville could choose four days of in-person classes or to stay all-online.
“Our teachers have done such an amazing job in the last year building community virtually and creating a sense of class, but to actually have the children here and to have that human interaction is incredibly powerful and it’s something that you can’t replicate,” she said. “ … We’ve been waiting for this moment, and really impressed by the students’ resilience and their flexibility and their ability to go with the new flow.”
City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said she’s learned the strength of the division’s staff and community during this last year.
“Something like this can turn your world upside down, and any success that comes out of this is because we have, in Charlottesville, a group of teachers, administrators and staff members who are willing to do whatever is necessary in order to respond to the needs of our students,” she said. “We are family; we are community. In Charlottesville, it does take a village, and our village has been demonstrated, time and time again over this past year.”
On Monday, fourth graders and up in the county will head back to school for classes with the start of Stage Four of the division’s five-stage reopening plan.
As Stage Four starts, schools Superintendent Matt Haas said he’s worried about the students the division has lost touch with over the last year.
“Until we get an account of a group of students that we haven’t been able to really connect with, I’m going to still be concerned about that,” he said.
For Haas, one of the hardest parts of the pandemic has been the shifting finish lines.
“It seems like we’re always trying to figure out when’s the finish line, and so you go through that process of, ‘well, the finish line’s here,’ and then realize later that that’s not a finish line, that’s just a mirage,” he said.
He described the last year as either a marathon or ultra marathon rather than a 5k.
“For me, it’s hard to grapple with that because with the work that we do, you’re so used to: there’s a problem, you come up with a plan, you address it, and you then move on to the next thing,” he said. “This has been the thing now for so long.”
Yet, Haas said he’s learned through all the changes of the last year that a school division can move much faster than he thought, though he does worry about putting too much stress on the system.
Haas expects conversations and efforts will accelerate to improve equity and opportunities for students.
“I think that those conversations are going to move a lot faster than they might have moved before as we waited for a critical mass of the community to understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said, adding that they aren’t going to stop listening. “I think we’re going to move.”
Moving forward, Haas said the division is planning to offer a virtual school option for students in upper elementary grades and older, which they hadn’t considered before the pandemic.
New approaches to communicating with families will also continue after the pandemic. Division staff have worked to be more proactive in reaching out to communities and following up with families.
“We’re so used to just broadcasting information and saying, ‘okay, we sent it to you; if you don’t get it, that’s your problem.’ But when you’re sending out information and someone’s health is really depending on it, and these operations are really depending on it, then you get better at checking and following up with phone calls,” Haas said.
Before the pandemic, Haas said he thought public education was stable and an institution families would always need and rely on.
“But I think that one of the things I’ve learned is that for a lot of people, it’s optional,” he said. “It’s not as permanent as you might think it is, and that we shouldn’t take the schools for granted. We shouldn’t take our school systems for granted. And we shouldn’t take for granted that we’re the only source of teaching and learning and instructional programming that our families have.”
That means the division has to put its best foot forward to provide high-quality experiences that families will want to be part of, he said.
“We really need to just continue to do everything we can to have an experience that is second to none,” he said.