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Charlottesville School Board approves all-online start

Updated at 11:40 p.m. Thursday with the vote.

The Charlottesville City School Board unanimously approved an all-virtual start to the school year late Thursday night after spending hours digging into details of virtual learning for the coming school year, looking at sample schedules and learning platforms.

“We are having to do this because we have been failed, period, as a community; this is not what we want to do,” board chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said, adding that University of Virginia should not be bringing back students next month and that their return keeps her up at night.

The board also pushed back the first day of school to Sept. 8. Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins recommended that online-only start Wednesday.

Atkins cited a rising number of COVID-19 cases, a higher-than-recommended percent positivity rate in our area and many unanswered questions about how best to protect staff and students in her decision to recommend that option, the third that she has proposed to board members this summer.

"We all realize that the hard work starts now," Atkins said.

As of Thursday, the plan included virtual learning for all students, though the School Board will hear a more specific presentation about how the division will support students in special education, English learners and preschoolers during next week’s meeting.

“When the data say we can do it safely, we will do a gradual and strategic step up towards that hybrid model we brought to you in June,” said Katina Otey, the division’s new chief academic officer. “… The data is what we will be counting on to make our decision to bring students back.”

When the board members had the chance to share their thoughts before the vote, they expressed frustration at the lack of guidance and broad failure to contain the pandemic, feeling forced into the decision. They empathized with families’ concerns and their struggles.

“You are trying to juggle multiple balls while the ground beneath you keeps shifting,” board member Sherry Kraft said.

Other board members said while a difficult decision, starting virtually was the right thing to do and hoped that the situation would improve after the first quarter.

“It’s about more than education at this point,” board member Lisa Larson-Torres said. “It’s about the health and safety. It’s about life and death in some circumstances. This is about you, and your child, your child’s bus driver, your child’s teacher, the teachers, family members, and it’s community. It’s all of us.”

‘Immensely difficult’

Thursday’s meeting included a lengthy conversation with Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, about testing, contact tracing and local coronavirus statistics. Bonds said the health district is hiring more contact tracers in anticipation of local schools reopening and the coming return of University of Virginia students.

The percent of positive cases for Charlottesville was 9% as of Thursday, according to a dashboard that Bonds showed to board members but is not publicly available.

Thursday’s presentation didn’t include which specific metrics the division needs to see to bring students back into the buildings. The state has not released guidance either. In the state’s Phase Three of reopening, schools can provide in-person learning for all students.

“Having metrics for public schools I think would be invaluable as we try to make decisions,” Atkins told Bonds.

McKeever said she was panicked about virtual learning as a parent with four children though supportive of the model. She too wanted metrics for returning to the building.

“I’m not a teacher,” she said. “I’m very bad at looking over their shoulder making sure they’re doing the work that they need to be doing. And I hope that my perspective in that way helps you all understand the panic that parents feel around this.”

To kick off the school year, schools are planning personalized back-to-school orientations to abide by social distancing and other safety protocols to hand out resources to students and teach parents about the online learning programs.

“We are not at all thinking that online is going to be easy; it will not be easy,” Atkins said. “It will take everyone’s cooperation and us working together in order to make this a successful experience for our students.”

Board members started asking questions about the proposed plan shortly after 9 p.m. They wanted to know about technology, accountability for student engagement, virtual fine arts programs, staff training for online tools, social-emotional supports for students and role of support staff.

Not all questions were answered and more information is expected next week and in the next month, especially about what happens after the first quarter. The division plans to post answers to frequently asked questions on its website.

Most of the people who spoke during public comment advocated for a hybrid option that would prioritize in-person classes for students with disabilities, those in working-class families and young children.

“No one is excited about the prospect of school being virtual rather than in-person,” said Angel Feero, with Abundant Life Ministries. “For some, it will be an inconvenience but they will manage. But for others, it will be immensely difficult with costly and lasting repercussions. This is why we cannot offer just one option.”

Feero and other speakers said online learning in the spring wasn’t effective. Even with improvements, Feero said an all-virtual model would exacerbate educational disparities in the community.

“Many families in my predominantly black and brown community are being put in a nearly impossible situation of having to choose between earning a living or being home to support their children’s virtual learning,” she said.

Division staff member previously presented two other options to board members. Plan A would have all students attending in-person classes two days a week. Plan B would send elementary students to school four days a week while older students would have two days of in-person classes.

In a division survey that opened July 13, families were divided on whether they wanted an online-only or a face-to-face plan. About 45% of families wanted the online-only option while a majority of staff members picked that option. About 39% preferred either one of the face-to-face plans previously presented. The survey was conducted over the phone and website and results varied slightly

About 33% of families said they wouldn’t send their child back to school. In June, about 10% of families responding in an online survey said they wouldn’t send their child to school while 20% said in a phone survey they wouldn’t.

Those who picked a face-to-face option said they thought the risks were less than the risks of children being out of school and that the family needs as much in-person learning and child care as possible.

Atkins said about 200 families have been identified as needing assistance with child care during the school year.

Board members said the survey data as presented didn’t provide a clear picture of what families wanted, especially those with young children and in the special education program.

Part of Thursday’s presentation focused on how the division would change its approach to virtual learning, including consistent schedules for students and common online programs.

For example, the division is planning to implement the learning management system Canvas division-wide and has created professional learning courses for teachers on the platform.

“We are focused on building a plan that prepares teachers with the necessary curriculum and instructional practices to provide deeper learning opportunities in a more focused and engaging manner than the emergency instruction that school divisions around our nation provided starting in March,” Otey said.

A group of teachers worked with division staff to craft the virtual learning plan. Another team is canvassing the community to identify areas where teachers and school staff could meet with students outside.

Atkins added that the school system might be able to help support learning pods in the community and is working with nonprofits on how to tackle challenges associated with virtual learning.

“I’m so impressed with the amount of work that has gone into this and just how totally different this is from last spring, when we just had to kind of suddenly jump onto something and try to cobble something together,” Kraft said.


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