After hundreds of division employees signed an open letter calling for a virtual return to school, Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matt Haas said he’ll present an online-only option for the School Board to consider at the end of this month.
“[The letter] tells me that there is a real fear that our employees are feeling about returning to school in the fall,” Haas said Tuesday.
The letter, written by two Albemarle County teachers, followed the release of the division’s reopening plans and is similar to efforts from from Charlottesville teachers and teacher associations throughout the state who have sought to persuade superintendents and School Boards to opt for all virtual classes. Teachers locally and across the country have said they are terrified to return to work and are concerned about the quality of in-person classes that abide by social distancing and other measures to slow or prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 500 staff members — 20% of the division’s workforce — signed the letter, which included eight pages of questions for division leadership. Those unanswered questions factored into the call for online-only classes.
“… All of the facilities questions, the instructional questions, the health questions that go along with that are just highlighting a level of uncertainty that I think most of the people who have signed that letter are just not comfortable with in terms of returning to work,” said Vicki Hobson, an Albemarle County instructional coach who helped to write the letter, adding the list is just the tip of the iceberg of what staff want to know.
Hobson and Katherine Gerry, a teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary, helped to write the letter and worked with other teachers to edit the document and compile the questions.
Haas outlined a reopening plan last Thursday that would send elementary students to classes four days a week while middle and high school students could go to school one or two days a week, a plan similar to what was proposed in Charlottesville City Schools. Parents also can choose an all-online option.
Haas said Friday that the plan would keep students and staff safe.
In recent days, school systems including Arlington Public Schools have reconsidered sending students back to face-to-face classes as positive cases of COVID-19 continue to climb. The city school system provided information Monday night about the pros and cons of online-only classes and is surveying families and school staff about the different options.
Haas said in an update to employees Tuesday that recent health developments in the region are making offering in-person classes “a more difficult path forward every day.”
“We are not yet at the point where we can open our schools with confidence that our students, their families, and our staff will be safe,” he wrote. “Hopefully, these conditions will improve over the next two months or soon thereafter.”
On Tuesday, the health district reported an additional 41 cases for a total of 1,277, and the percent of positive cases ticked up to 8%. Albemarle County has the highest case totals in the area with 578.
Why all-virtual classes
Hobson, who has two young boys, had initially planned to send her kids to school in-person.
But she changed her mind after reading research about the virus, seeing families not wearing masks or social distancing and hearing about an Arizona teacher who died after contracting the virus. The teacher had worked in the same classroom as two other educators to run a virtual summer school program.
“And for me, it just hit home; this isn’t theoretical,” she said. “The likelihood of somebody that I know might die and do I want that to be my children? Do I want that to be me? Do I want that to be my friends? Do I want that to be anybody in our school system and greater community? … I have my own children and I cherish them like all parents do, and I just wasn’t willing for them to be guinea pigs.”
The University of Virginia’s plans to bring back students to Grounds also led to her change of mind.
Hobson called for a virtual return to school at last Thursday’s county School Board meeting and said she received an outpouring of support afterward, which evolved into teaming up with Gerry to write the letter.
Hobson said she was overwhelmed by the response.
“It speaks to the fact that we have a whole community of educators that desperately want to do their jobs and do them well and care deeply about families and students, but also care deeply about their health,” she said. “… I’m proud of people for putting themselves out there and putting their names publicly on a letter.”
Gerry, who teaches third grade at Broadus Wood, said she felt a responsibility to ask questions about the division’s plan to know that she can keep herself and her students safe. She also was inspired by the Charlottesville teachers who penned their own open letter last week.
“We’re using their lessons as a starting point, which was great,” she said.
In the letter, the teachers wrote they are aware of parents’ concerns and of the arguments in favor of face-to-face classes, adding that they recognize the first iteration of virtual learning during the spring didn’t adequately serve all students and families. However, they want to protect the community’s well-being.
Monica Laux, a teacher at Albemarle High School, helped with the letter because she’s worried about marginalized communities and fears that in-person classes would put Black and Latinx students more at-risk.
Local, state and national data about COVID-19 infections shows that the virus is having a disportationate effect on communities of color. In the Thomas Jefferson Health District, Black people make up nearly half of those who have been hospitalized for the virus while Hispanic people comprise 17%.
“Many of our families will have the resources and wealth available to choose online learning or private tutoring while we send our most marginalized communities, families, students, and teachers alike, into unsafe indoor environments,” they wrote in the letter.
Laux said the division should evaluate at-risk students’ needs and seek community-centered and safe solutions. Additionally, she doesn’t think benefits of in-person schooling outweigh making virtual instruction robust, collaborative and helpful.
“I think that an in person environment where we’re all masked, and teachers are put in a position of policing students, yelling at them to put their mask back on or stay six feet apart is more traumatizing than trying to build an online community and show our support and love for students that way,” she said.
Drafting a new plan
Haas said Tuesday that division leadership will go back to the drawing board to draft a plan for virtual learning that includes more professional development for staff, a consistent schedule for students and childcare options for employees and parents.
The School Board meets July 30 to decide on a reopening plan. Haas said the plan presented last week was created based on what was allowed for Phase Three. Division officials used building and school bus capacity to come up with the scheduling options.
Virginia schools can provide in-person classes to all students if the state remains in Phase Three of its reopening plan. Under Phase Two, school divisions are allowed to offer limited in-person classes for students with disabilities, English Language Learners and preschoolers through third-graders.
On Monday, Charlottesville officials said they are weighing whether to ask Gov. Ralph Northam to allow the area to return to Phase Two.
Haas said that opening schools would expose teachers and support staff to more risk.
Haas said another concern with in-person classes is the return of UVa students next month, a worry echoed by city officials and School board members.
“You throw in the other potential for the super-spreaders, which is bringing the students back, even a portion of students back to UVa, I think you’re increasing the chances for spreading [the virus] exponentially and having it get into the schools,” Haas said.
Further complicating decisions about reopening is a lack of federal leadership and murky guidance from state officials, he said.
“It’s hard,” Haas said. “… What I hear from many of my colleagues is that they really would appreciate it if someone at the state level would just make a decision about how schools across the state would be run.”