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Atkins to recommend online-start to Charlottesville school year

Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins will recommend that the division start classes online for the first nine weeks of the year, according to an email sent to families Wednesday evening.

More information will be released Thursday evening when the School Board meets to vote on a reopening plan. Atkins previously presented two plans to the board: one that would have all students attending in-person classes two days a week and another that would send elementary students to school four days a week while older students would have two days of classes.

Atkins also will present a revised calendar during the meeting that would start the school year on Sept. 8.

The online-only option for all students follows calls from board members to see such a plan and staff members who feared returning to the classroom while the COVID-19 outbreak was not under control.

“After much thought, listening to teachers and the community, staff planning, consultation with public health experts, and more, we are recommending to the Board that Charlottesville City Schools open all-online for the first nine weeks of the year,” Atkins wrote in the email. “We recommend that we revisit this decision mid-way through the first quarter to see if we can confidently resume face-to-face learning.”

Some parents have advocated for physical classes, especially for younger students, because of worries that not being in school would harm their social-emotional and academic development.

The Thomas Jefferson Health District has reported 731 new cases of COVID-19 this month, the highest monthly increase since the pandemic began in March. Additionally, the district’s seven-day average of positive cases was at 6.9% and has fluctuated throughout the month. Public health officials have said a sustained decline in that rate is one measure that would show control of the spread.

Online-only would eliminate the risk that schools would be the center of an outbreak, give staff time to plan for virtual instruction and give the division time to observe and learn from other school systems that offer in-person classes, according to division documents highlighting the pros and cons of each option.

Cons of the plan include a large childcare burden for families, the risk of children mingling in different groups when they are not in school and the potential for learning losses, social isolation and other negative impacts on students.

Nearly half of the parents surveyed at the end of the school year rated distance learning during the spring closure as either 1 or 2, with 5 meaning very good for the circumstances.

“We have spent the summer researching best practices and we have already opened our professional learning class to staff so teachers can make the fall a much more positive and productive experience than our emergency learning in the spring,” she wrote in the email.

Shannon Gillikin and Tess Krovetz, both teachers at Jackson-Via Elementary, co-wrote an open letter from Charlottesville staff asking for the virtual start. On Wednesday evening, they said they were grateful for the recommendation.

“I’m relieved at how well Dr. Atkins and the central office started listening to teachers and including us and getting our feedback,” Gillikin said.

Both have worked with a team of teachers in the last month to survey families about virtual learning and come up with a plan to improve the experience.

“Personally and professionally, I’m quite happy that Dr. Atkins is recommending that we start the first nine weeks virtually,” Krovetz said. “She’s said from the beginning that she’s focused on safety and this shows that she meant that and that she’s listening to teachers and families and trying to find the best possible option.”

Atkins noted in the email that any option for the coming school year will raise concerns. For the online-only plan, she said division staff have reached out to community partners to discuss child care resources for working families and noted that the fall plans will incorporate social-emotional learning, community-building and peer-to-peer engagement to help with students’ mental well-being.

“We are bringing in new resources and will soon be asking you about your family’s needs so that we can support you,” she wrote. “Our teachers are already working on ways to make connections and build relationships with you and your students.”

The division surveyed parents and staff about the three options, and the results will be released Thursday. In a survey from June, a majority of parents who responded wanted more than two days of physical classes.

“Through our surveys, we know there is no clear consensus among families about the best path forward,” Atkins wrote.

Atkins wrote that the division will watch sister school systems for answers about how to safely resume in-person instruction that follows social distancing guidelines as well as other school reopenings to see if safety protocols can contain the virus.

Additionally, the division is advocating for state or national guidelines to help schools decide when to reopen or close and other questions about reopening.

The Nelson County school division decided last week to start the school year online and outlined phases for a phased return to in-person classes. Other school districts in the area have decided to offer a mix of in-person and virtual classes for students.

“In short, we know you have concerns,” she wrote. “We share those concerns. And for the time being, with cases rising in our nation and area, with a higher-than-recommended positivity rate in our area, and with many unanswered questions about how best to protect our staff and students, we have decided to put our efforts into online learning so we can make this first nine weeks rewarding and productive.”

Albemarle County School Board will also settle on a reopening plan Thursday during a special meeting that begins at 2 p.m.


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