The Albemarle County school division is not planning to add more days of in-person instruction for the rest of this school year; however, all students will have access to five days per week of in-person classes next school year.
“What we’re saying is that’s the default unless something drastic changes between now and then,” schools Superintendent Matt Haas said of the five-day plan during a media briefing at Baker-Butler Elementary School on Monday. “It’s on us to get our school buses the way they need to be and to make sure that we have adequate spacing in all of our schools. … So we’re committing to that and then we’re going to need to make it happen.”
Haas previously planned to share his recommendation for opening schools next school year May 6. Since that special School Board meeting was scheduled, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law that requires schools to provide full-time, in-person instruction as of July 1.
He’ll share his recommendation with the School Board at Thursday’s work session, which will focus on learning recovery plans. A key part of those plans is summer programming. Haas said he expects more concrete details about the free summer options that will run from July 6 to July 30 to be released within the next few weeks.
“I think that students are going to enjoy it, and it’ll be a big step in the right direction around [how] they’re feeling better and feeling recovered as they make their way into the school year for next year,” Haas said.
The conversation on May 6 and beyond will focus more on how the division will handle five days of in-person classes with COVID-19 mitigation measures such as social distancing. Those efforts will include upgrading air filters on school buses and adding trailers to school buildings to accommodate additional students.
“So it’s going to be expensive, but we normally don’t have the dollars to go with the needs and this is a time to leverage [the federal stimulus money],” Haas said.
The division is also planning to open a virtual school for students in addition to the five-day option.
For in-person classes this school year, the division was constrained by space and staffing, which limited how many students could be in the buildings at once. Currently, pre-kindergarteners through third-graders have the option of four days of in-person classes while students in fourth grade and up can go to school twice a week, under the fourth stage of the division’s reopening plan.
In the last month, county parents started a Facebook group as a way to share experiences with virtual learning and concerns about the apparent lack of planning for fall classes. Those conversations resulted in an open letter with 990 signatures, advocating for a five-day in-person option for next year. Parents in the group also have discussed the need for the division to expand the number of in-person days for the rest of this school year.
Organizers of the Facebook group said Monday that Haas’ announcement was strongly supported by community feedback.
“While we would have preferred ACPS implement this access to in-person instruction during the current school year, we urge the School Board to follow the science and overwhelming data that supports re-opening and vote to approve this plan,” the organizers said a statement. “We look forward to brighter days for our community and the opportunity for students, families, teachers and administrators to thrive together in the coming school year.”
Haas said Stage Four stretched the division to its limits. Offering more in-person days would require shifts in staffing and transportation, both of which are at capacity. Haas said changing either would disrupt the careful balance in place for Stage Four.
“We do not have adequate staffing to go to that extent at this point,” he said. “In many of our schools, we do not have the classroom space to space things out, even at three feet social distancing.”
The division focused efforts on bringing younger students in for four days days a week because that was the guidance from the Virginia Department of Education. In Stage Three, pre-kindergartners through third-graders had two days of in-person classes a week.
“When we made a recommendation for Stage Four, we really optimized and stretched and did everything you could to offer in-person learning to our elementary school students to the maximum amount that we could,” Haas said.
Haas added that the division is continuing to bring more students back into the buildings as families switch from virtual to in-person. Since Stage Four began in mid-March, 700 students have made that switch, he said.
For this school year, about 42% of students are still all-online, according to a division news release.
“So every time you try to make a shift at the school level, you also have to take into account all those students, and it is a factor in my decision-making process around not making another change [for this school year] because they’ve gone through several changes as we’ve made our way through,” he said.
During Stage Four, students in fourth and fifth grade have the least amount of face-to-face time with teachers. The three days of the week that students aren’t in the buildings are mostly asynchronous and for other independent assignments.
“Really, every day, I think, our teachers and principals are troubleshooting and making plans and doing the best they can to really optimize this experience for the fourth- and fifth-graders,” Haas said. “What can be done is really going to depend on that ongoing improvement through the end of the year.”
Initial results from an online survey show that most families in the division would be comfortable returning to school with minimal or no social distancing in place, Haas said. About 6,500 families responded to the survey.
For the 10% of students who would not be comfortable, Haas said there will be a virtual option that will be a standalone school.
The division is planning to use federal stimulus funds to support the new virtual school. The first step will be hiring a principal and then staffing the school. Similar to the setup at the county’s charter school and high school center, students at the virtual school could participate in athletics and extracurriculars at their base school.
Having an all-virtual school is “long overdue,” Haas said, and something division staff have talked about for years. He expects that anywhere from 5% to 10% of students would utilize the virtual option in a typical school year for a variety of reasons. For example, the virtual school would help better serve students who receive homebound instruction when they can’t attend school for a significant amount of time because of a medical issue.
“What happens is they almost invariably just get behind because it all hinges on coming to pick up work,” Haas said of those students.
“This may be something that could really help those students because if a student has a significant medical issue, and needs to be out of school for three months or half a year, they can transfer to the virtual school, attend from home and come back [to their usual school] if they want to or finish out the year. I think that’s going to be pretty helpful and there’s other areas where students might thrive in a virtual program.”