Charlottesville students should continue with virtual learning for at least the first part of the second quarter, with some students possibly starting in-person classes in January, the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee recommended Wednesday.
The committee decided to not start in-person classes until January to give division staff time to prepare the schools to follow the recommended mitigation strategies, as well as to establish a range of protocols to ensure the safety of students and staff. Committee members also were concerned about the city’s COVID-19 case numbers, uncertainty about the impact of the coming flu season and disruptions and travel around Thanksgiving and winter breaks, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins told families in a letter sent Wednesday evening.
Families can still opt to stick with virtual learning.
Atkins wrote that the proposal is a preliminary recommendation, not a definite plan. She still needs to present a plan to the School Board, which has the final say. Board members have said they would like to have a special meeting this month to discuss reopening plans, but one hasn’t been scheduled yet.
“We know this timeframe is disappointing to some of you,” Atkins wrote. “Earlier this year, we began making individual accommodations for special education students as needed, and we encourage families to be in contact with your teachers, counselor, or other school staff so that we can partner with you to meet the needs of your students this fall and winter.”
As of Thursday, Charlottesville’s case incidence rate per 100,000 residents was at 430.2 cases over the last 14 days, which falls in the highest risk category as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is much lower than earlier this month when the rate peaked at 650.5, though the threshold for the risk category is 200.
The city’s percent of positive cases is at 2.8% and in the lowest risk category. The Thomas Jefferson Health District has said that most of the new COVID-19 cases in the last two months are related to the University of Virginia and supports school reopenings in Albemarle County and other localities.
Charlottesville, which has had 1,481 cases, recently overtook Albemarle County in the number of reported cases. Albemarle has had the most cases in the health district since March 28.
The committee’s recommendation comes as school systems around Virginia are making plans for the second quarter. Some community groups that have worked to fill gaps left by the school closure also are making plans for in-person learning. The Albemarle County School Board voted last week to move the division to open up in-person classes to preschoolers through third-graders starting Nov. 9. In Nelson County, the board voted to stay mostly online for the second quarter.
The division’s advisory committee, made up of parents, teachers and school administrators, has met regularly over the last month to consider what classes should look like during the second quarter
Presentations from the three subcommittees highlight the complexity of reopening schools during the pandemic and the outstanding questions that need to be resolved before any plan for in-person classes can move forward.
Committee members want to see a range of protocols and procedures and time for teachers to transition to face-to-face learning before schools reopen, according to the presentations. Subcommittees of the group overwhelmingly said clarity and equity were the biggest needs in reopening plans.
One subcommittee provided a list of 13 topics that the division should consider creating protocols for, such as attendance policies and guidelines for behaviors outside of school to keep schools open.
The elementary subcommittee recommended breaking up students into two groups, with one returning Jan. 11 and the other coming back Jan. 19. Whether they have two or four days of in-person classes a week depends on how many families decide to send their kids back to school.
That subcommittee did acknowledge that a four-day model is optimal but had concerns about its feasibility.
“This recommendation is a one-size-fits-most model,” committee members said in the presentation, adding that in individual programs such as for special education students and English-Language Learners might need to have a different return to school plan.
Preschoolers through first-graders would be in the first cohort along with fifth grade. Students in second to fourth grade as well as sixth would make up the second cohort.
The committee said it believes the youngest students would benefit most from the earlier return to in-person classes and that fifth-graders should have a chance to build community and become familiar with the building before the sixth-graders return.
The committee also suggested offering a trial run of in-person instructional days during the week prior to winter break.
Students at Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools would return Feb. 1, the start of the third quarter, and have two days of in-person classes. The two-day model is the only option for this group because of space and scheduling restrictions, according to the secondary subcommittee’s presentation.
In-person classes hinge on the ability of the division to prepare its facilities and to implement the mitigation strategies such as spacing out desks in classrooms and improving ventilation and air filtration.
The facilities and mitigation subcommittee suggested that the division create a school report card to show the list of HVAC projects completed or underway. They said they wouldn’t recommend opening a building unless all the filters were updated.
Division officials have said they are planning to use the highest-rated filters that the HVAC equipment will accept.
Subcommittee members said in the presentation they were concerned about the availability of N95 masks and who would receive them. School nurses have been fitted for the masks but not all have received them due to availability.
More gowns for certain staff members and plexiglass dividers are needed, according to the presentation.
They also said the division needed to communicate what supplies are already in buildings and which are available to be used and ensure that students and staff have access to new or clean masks.
Atkins wrote that the division will continue to refine in-person protocols to support a smooth reopening for families regardless of the learning model.
“We know this is challenging,” she wrote. “Just because the pandemic is no longer ‘new’ doesn’t make it any easier. Yet even so, I am proud of our community — parents, students, teachers, community partners, and more — for a willingness to keep learning together.”