Some Charlottesville students could return to the classroom as early as Oct. 13 under an initial plan presented to the district’s COVID-19 advisory committee earlier this week.
Division officials stressed that this plan was preliminary and a starting point for discussion; changes are expected to be made before the committee makes a recommendation to the School Board on Oct. 1. The board voted in July for all virtual classes for the first quarter, which ends Nov. 6.
The proposal, which was emailed to families Friday, has been met with pushback from parents, teachers and some board members who are worried about the change in timeline, among other concerns.
Both divisions started the school year virtually Sept. 8 and have said they will take a quarter-by-quarter approach to classes as they respond and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Albemarle County School Board will hear about further reopening options for the second quarter on Oct. 8, and county officials say no decision has been made.
The Charlottesville Education Association held an emergency meeting Thursday night to discuss the proposal.
“It was 100% out of left field,” said Jessica Taylor, president of CEA and a first-grade teacher at Clark Elementary. “It’s even difficult to describe the depth of anxiety and sadness that we haven’t learned anything about transparency, communication and inclusivity. We learned about the reopening plan in the meeting.”
Students in preschool to second grade would be the first group to return to in-person classes four days a week under this version of the plan.
The division is planning to survey families about the staggered reopening plan next week, according to the presentation to the committee, which has 52 members representing parents, employees, community groups, medical professionals and public health officials. Parents could also opt to continue virtual learning.
School Board chairwoman Jennifer McKeever sits on the committee and said Wednesday’s conversation was helpful and included a lot of questions about the timeline and other issues.
“I don’t want to mislead the public,” she said. “The timeline is soft, and the board has not decided on anything. The plan is going to be tweaked.”
The Albemarle Education Association told members this week that schools Superintendent Matt Haas will potentially recommend a move to the third stage of the division’s reopening plan for the second quarter at the county School Board’s Oct. 9 meeting. Stage Three would allow for in-person classes from preschoolers through third-graders. Currently, the division is in Stage Two and students without internet, some English Language Learners and some with disabilities are eligible for in-person access to school buildings. About 680 students accepted the division’s invitation as of the first day of school.
Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said Friday that Haas has not made a decision. In an email obtained by the Daily Progress, Haas said division leadership sought feedback in developing details for Stage Three in order to flesh out the plan.
If the division moves to Stage Three, teachers could be required to teach from buildings, AEA said.
“We believe that local health data does not support a move to Stage 3 this soon, and ACPS has never revealed their benchmarks that would indicate it is safe to do so,” AEA said in the email. “We also believe that forcing all teachers to report to school to conduct virtual instruction is needlessly punitive and puts all teachers and staff at an unnecessary health risk.”
Giaramita said the division is in the process of developing options for the Oct. 8 meeting, which include talking to advisory groups. The division is expecting to put out a survey to employees, parents and students by the end of next week.
“What we will be looking for are perspectives on how well the current instructional model is meeting learning needs, what needs or changes are surfacing, how respondents are feeling about their health needs and if they are planning to come back to work if student in-person enrollment is expanded,” he said, adding the division is reviewing which students should be included in Stage Three.
City’s reopening plan
Charlottesville’s COVID-19 committee held its first meeting Wednesday to start the process of making a recommendation to the School Board about the format for classes in the second quarter, but the proposed plan would start in-person classes before the first quarter ends Nov. 6. Under the plan, different groups of students could return to the classroom over the course of October.
Division spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said a staggered reopening in early November would be interrupted quickly with Thanksgiving and winter break.
“Returning earlier allows for more continued instruction and routine before these events. But again, nothing has been decided, and everything is up for discussion,” she said. “We are thinking outside the box to present all options to the committee.”
The plan outlines a staged reopening that breaks students in three cohorts: preschool through second-grade students; third- to fifth-graders; and sixth-graders and up. Mirroring the division’s plan from early July, the first two cohorts and sixth-graders would attend classes four days a week while students in seventh-grade and up would have two days of in-person classes and two days of independent learning.
The proposal would have the first cohort return to class Oct. 13, then the second cohort Oct. 20 with the last group starting Oct. 27. These are the earliest possible return dates, according to the presentation.
Cheuk said the division leaders have been following other school divisions that chose to implement in-person learning and following the data. Wednesday’s meeting included a presentation from Thomas Jefferson Health District staff.
“We are very proud of the quality of our online offerings for this fall, but we know that face-to-face instruction is a better model for many of our students and families,” Cheuk said. “Our overall concern for student learning — combined with our commitment to safety — contributed to this proposed plan. Everyone agrees that we will eventually return to in-person learning; this process is to determine how and when we will do so.”
The advisory committee is slated to meet twice more this month before the Oct. 1 board meeting.
The committee’s first meeting on Wednesday came a day after the release of federal COVID-19 indicators to guide school reopening decisions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed three core indicators — the average number of cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days; the 14-day average positivity rate; and the ability of a school to implement five mitigating factors — and provided metrics for each to gauge the risk of transmission in schools. Secondary indicators include the percent change of new cases in the last seven days compared to the previous week and the number of hospital beds occupied and if cases suddenly increase in an area.
Not all of those indicators have publicly available data. The 14-day average of new cases in Charlottesville per 100,000 people has risen consistently all month to 24.05, which falls under moderate risk of transmission, according to the CDC indicators. Albemarle’s average has stayed fairly low all month and was at 2.76 on Saturday.
As of Friday, the seven-day average of the percent of positive cases was 3.9% in Charlottesville and 3.91% in Albemarle, according to the health district. The district’s overall average was at 4.5%.
The COVID-19 advisory committee will review a range of data points about the local spread of the virus, state and federal guidance, the status of neighboring divisions as well as surveys and transportation capacity in order to make their recommendation, according to the presentation. The committee meetings are not open to the public.
State Superintendent of Schools James Lane discussed the federal transmission indicators with the state board of education Thursday.
“We have begun encouraging our school districts to make sure they are formulating plans to move to the next step, based on transmission level,” he said. “We have seen some positive movement on this.”
‘A time warp’
In July, Charlottesville School Board members were hesitant about the four-day a week plan, and teachers were opposed. Eventually, the board voted July 30 to start the year virtually for the first nine weeks. The virtual start was the third reopening plan the division developed over the summer in response to community feedback.
On Saturday, board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger tweeted that the division needs to stay the course.
“We voted to go virtual for the first 9 weeks and develop thoughtful criteria for how and when we return to in person learning, and this change in direction by Dr. Atkins is unacceptable,” she wrote. “We made a plan and gave our word, we voted on it! We have to stick to the plan.”
Taylor, with CEA, said she doesn’t know where the new plan came from but thinks it could be related to enrollment changes because of virtual learning. State funds for schools are allocated, in part, by a division’s average daily attendance.
CEA is planning a letter campaign to Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, urging them to pass a provision in the revised state budget that would base state funding on the previous school year’s enrollment, she said.
“The members are rallying and we are feeling strong and unified,” she said. “We’ll continue to fight to ensure teachers in CCS are safe, and continue to demand transparency and communication in any plan.”
Taylor said that teachers were ready to start planning for how to reopen schools but they weren’t prepared for in-person classes to start so soon.
“It’s a time warp,” she said. “We’re having the same conversations with the same people as we did months ago. … Staff feel disrespected at a level I haven’t seen since I started in the city. We felt like we had turned a corner and started building meaningful relationships with the central office.”
CEA worked with the division over the summer to craft plans for virtual learning. Taylor said teachers have heard from families and community members that the online classes were working.
“Is it ideal? No,” she said. “But we don’t feel like we are risking our lives going into work.”
If the division moves to a hybrid learning model, Cheuk said they want to sustain the quality of the online offerings for those who choose to return to in-person instruction as well as those who remain online.
“It is our hope that the percentages of students and staff wishing [to stay] online-only will allow for designated online only staff to support online-only students at the same high levels we have begun,” she said. “Teaching assignments will be reviewed to accommodate the needs of students attending face-to-face and online. We may need to adjust teaching assignments and class rosters to allow for this.
“This plan will impact our entire community, and in the spirit of transparency, we have presented a plan for input and review,” she added. “We expect the reopening plan to change a number of times before we bring it to the Board.”