Albemarle County’s plans for division-wide in-person classes would mean an all-hands-on-deck approach at the elementary schools.
That means that those who typically teach music, art or physical education, as well as talent development teachers, media specialists, teaching assistants and interventionists, will become general classroom teachers and share content areas with a partner teacher. Students wouldn’t have separate special classes or dedicated intervention time, which is used to help those who are behind in reading and math.
“We are prioritizing students’ immediate needs of being able to be in our buildings as much as possible over any structures and staff assignments that we normally put into place,” Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said during Thursday’s School Board meeting.
Collins and other division staff members detailed plans for a possible Stage Four. The division’s goal is more in-person classes, which officials see as more valuable and beneficial to students.
The presentation was the first step as the School Board prepares to make a decision for the third quarter. Schools Superintendent Matt Haas will make his recommendation to the School Board next month about whether the division should move to Stage Four. The board will vote Jan. 21.
The division wants to provide four days of in-person classes for elementary students and two days for those in sixth-grade and higher, with an all-virtual option still available to families. The proposed plan also overhauls the schedule for in-person students; however, Friday will continue to be an at-home learning day.
The specific number of in-person class days for elementary students depends on how many choose hybrid learning. Four days is more of a possibility for preschool through second-grade, staff members said.
As with Stage Three, many of the specific details will be left to principals to work through.
Piper Gary, a music teacher at Woodbrook Elementary, pushed back on several aspects of the plan in an email to School Board members that was provided to The Daily Progress.
“Please do not vote to take away art, music, and P.E. instruction from our elementary students,” Gary wrote. “They have already lost so much. Unfortunately, that is what will happen if Stage Four passes with the current plan that is in place. After building relationships with students (K-5) throughout the entire first semester, Stage Four would abruptly stop the interaction that students have with specialists across the county unless the plan is changed.”
School Board member Judy Le was among the few who asked questions about the presentation and expressed concern about removing the intervention services.
“We hear so much about pandemic loss of learning, and it seems like that would be something that we would want to continue to prioritize for those students,” Le said.
During Thursday’s meeting, a student athlete and two parents urged the School Board to restart winter sports, which were postponed until January after the division announced it was switching all classes to virtual next week and the week following winter break as a precaution.
Three teachers who spoke expressed concerns about the division’s Stage Four plans, as well as the need for additional training in helping them talk about the pandemic with students.
“I would just like to ask you all to think about equity and think about kids being moved around again in Stage Four, because I’m not sure how we can do anything in Stage Four without kids and teachers being moved again,” said Debbie Stollings, a virtual second-grade teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. “We’re exhausted, and the kids are exhausted. It’s a lot of time on the screen.”
COVID case numbers are climbing locally, in the health district and across the state following Thanksgiving. On Thursday, the 14-day case incidence rate, which is determined by the number of new cases per 100,000 residents, reached a new high in Albemarle County at 306 — the sixth consecutive day that number has been above 200 cases and in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s highest risk category for transmission.
Currently, 10 people are isolated because they tested positive for COVID-19, and 40 are quarantined because of an exposure at a school division site, according to board documents. Overall, 17 students, 27 staff members and four contractors have tested positive.
Albemarle division staff have spent the last month meeting with teachers and fleshing out details for Stage Four, which would include in-person classes for all students. Right now, preschoolers through third-graders have that option.
“We are doing this because we know that increasing in-person learning for as many students as possible is critical, and that we will need to create structures and frameworks that help us do that,” Collins said of the Stage Four planning process.
During Stage Three, participation levels in either the hybrid or all-virtual model varied across schools, with about half of students overall going in-person. Stage Four would mean that nearly 9,500 students would be eligible for in-person classes.
Before Haas’ recommendation, the division is planning to survey staff and families about their learning preferences. Staff who would prefer to continue teaching virtually would have to request an accommodation to do so by Dec. 17, though officials said in the presentation that they anticipate granting fewer of those requests for Stage Four because of the need for more employees to work in the buildings.
During Stage Four, meals would no longer be delivered along bus routes to students as has been the case since September, according to Thursday’s presentation. For those learning virtually, meals can still be picked up at select locations throughout the county. Additionally, the division’s after-school program will restart for families and registration will be through a lottery system.
The division also would have less capacity on school buses to transport students, and families are encouraged to drive their students to school if able to do so.
Thursday’s presentation included details on what a typical class and school day would look like. For in-person students at the middle and high school level, they would be separated into two groups — A and B — and attend on either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday. They would have class time together, though, with the at-home group joining the in-person group over Zoom.
For Stage Four planning, division senior leadership established four non-negotiables: a four-day week for all elementary students, one bus run, a class size of 10 to 12 students and no additional staffing.
Division staff said they met with a committee of teachers to hear their feedback on the proposal.
The secondary teachers said they needed to time develop learning plans for when students are in the school and at home and wanted to ensure students who are all-virtual have an equitable learning experience. Additionally, they would need resources to create a high-quality whole-group learning environment for both students learning from home and in person
Elementary teachers had similar concerns, according to the presentation. With the hybrid model, they said they would need different ways for students to receive instruction and support typically provided by specialists and interventions.
“Currently, many schools, my own included, are understaffed and lack the space to either implement this plan as it currently stands,” Danielle Joseph, a kindergarten teacher at Woodbrook, said at Thursday’s meeting. “Even if staffing issues are resolved, I firmly believe the quality of student education will suffer in this scenario.”
Joseph was part of the committee that reviewed the plan.
The teachers told division staff that in-person learning would allow for more hands-on activities, peer interactions, a more balanced use of technology, access to resources and materials and increased in-person feedback.
In the presentation, the division recommended providing teachers with two days to prepare for a transition to Stage Four, as well as ongoing and uninterrupted planning time for staff, providing resources and models for the planning time and ensuring students who are 100% virtual have an equitable learning experience.
No details were presented on how to tackle that last recommendation. The division has released a nine-page planning guide to assist with the move to Stage Four.
Division staff discussed several different sample elementary schedules with the School Board — all of which are more convoluted than what students have now and involved teachers working with a partner. Specific details will be shared by school principals, according to the division’s FAQ about Stage Four.
Gary, the Woodbrook music teacher, was part of the planning committee and wrote that she was grateful to participate in the process.
She said the majority of teachers in the meetings were concerned about having teaching partners and opposed the current plan.
“This is a relationship that normally takes a great deal of time and planning in order to be successful, but in this case, we are talking about an emergency situation with no time to plan and with teachers who are already stretched to the max being partnered with a teacher who is possibly endorsed in a completely different subject area,” Gary wrote of the teacher partners.
After voicing their concerns, Gary said the committee learned at a subsequent meeting about the division’s non-negotiables in planning.
“Most of us were completely floored by this,” Gary wrote. “While I am only speaking on behalf of myself right now, not the entire committee, this is what I saw and heard during the meetings. With these non-negotiables in place, we appear to have an impossible situation.”
Gary added that she was concerned about the space needed to bring in more students four days a week and the potential of moving students to another school, questioning how that would be better than classes during Stage Three.
She proposed explaining the hybrid option from Stage Three to all students to allow for a “more successful and less traumatic Stage Four.”
“I realize that no option is ideal during this pandemic; however, I believe we can work together to move forward rather than backward,” she wrote. “In my opinion, the current Stage Four plan is not an improvement to what we are doing.”