The Charlottesville School Board continued its steady march toward a December decision Thursday night as members held another lengthy discussion about the plan to start in-person classes in January.
After two hours of conversation, the board gave the greenlight for division leadership to continue planning for in-person classes and will make a final decision Dec. 16 on the proposed reopening plan after reviewing the latest COVID-19 cases.
About 66% of the division’s students would attend in-person, according to the results of a binding intent form. About 83% of families responded to the form, and division staff members are still working to gather responses. Meanwhile, 30% of the teachers who responded said they would want to teach online.
Earlier this month, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins recommended the plan for in-person classes put forth by the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee.
Under that plan, students at Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools could start Feb. 1 with in-person classes twice a week and independent virtual learning three days a week. Meanwhile, preschoolers through sixth-graders would have four days of in-person classes, starting with a phased return Jan. 11.
Schools have been planning for a range of students to return with plans for 55% to 85% of students opting for hybrid classes.
Individual school responses for hybrid classes varied from 62% at Clark Elementary to 71% at Greenbrier and Venable Elementary schools, according to information provided to the School Board.
Demographically, about 64% to 68% of each student group chose hybrid, except for students learning the English language. About 80% of those students opted for in-person classes. About 92% of white families responded to the survey, which was the highest response rate of the different demographic groups.
Thursday’s meeting was the third in which the board and division staff discussed the proposed model for in-person classes, and the key concerns of board members have crystalized.
They’re worried about rising COVID-19 case numbers in the state and nationally; making sure staff members aren’t forced to work in person if they don’t want to; changes to virtual learning in the new model; and the increase in asynchronous days — days when students work independently on assignments and other activities — for middle and high school students.
Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever was particularly concerned about seventh through 12th grade students having three asynchronous days per week. Currently, they have one.
“I cannot understate how bad asynchronous learning is,” she said. “I’m very concerned about giving that independence to seventh- to 12th-graders for three days in the week. I think that seems like far too much asynchronous time. Whatever needs to happen to minimize asynchronous time, we need to do that.”
The bulk of the discussion focused on the schedule for Buford and CHS. Having virtual and in-person students presents a more complicated challenge for those two schools because of the regular class schedule, as well as the need to have teachers with certain endorsements teach specific classes.
CHS Principal Eric Irizarry said the current plan involves having all-virtual students join an in-person class via Zoom. High school students would have one 90-minute class with each teacher once a week, and the daily schedule would change from a noon to 4 p.m. day to a more traditional 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. day.
The division’s COVID-19 advisory committee devised the sample schedule that is the foundation for CHS’s plans.
Irizarry said the schedule can be still tweaked, and that his team is meeting with other high schools who have started in-person classes.
However, it would be hard to get around having the asynchronous days, he said.
Atkins said division staff will provide more information about those days during the board’s December meetings.
“I think a lot of people have found the virtual synchronous to work really well,” board member Sherry Kraft said. “With this new model, I think people are afraid that they’re actually losing that quality instruction, even if a student is virtual.”
Board member Juandiego Wade said he favored giving principals and teachers the flexibility to plan and make the schedule work.
“I think that at some point we can’t keep studying; we have to take action,” he said.
About 36 employees requested a leave of absence through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Of the 172 employees who wanted to keep teaching online, they said they were either high risk for the virus or caring for someone who is high risk; preferred that option; or are providing care for someone.
Still, the majority of those who responded said they would work in person; either online or in person; or wherever they are needed.
“It’s great the way that’s aligning up with the data that’s been collected from our parents,” said Keith Hubbard, the division’s director of human resources. “At this point, that’s very encouraging as we look to make some really, really tough decisions in this unprecedented time.”
Jessica Taylor, a first-grade teacher at Clark and president of the Charlottesville Education Association, said there was a breakdown in understanding between the division and educators requesting accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act and virtual teaching placements.
“One CEA member was given the choice to provide face-to-face services for a student or resign; she chose to resign,” Taylor said, adding that educators who submitted papers should receive acknowledgement of receipt without having to follow up numerous times.
Atkins said later in the meeting that she doesn’t want anyone to resign.
“COVID will not last forever,” she said. “… We want them to stay. We want to work with our staff. We’ll have lots of individual conversations.”
Some parents said during public comment and have told board members that they picked in-person classes just in case they wanted to switch back to the all-virtual option and felt boxed in by the binding form.
“The intent form is not answering the question that the board thinks it is,” said Maria Stein, a Charlottesville parent who said she picked in-person classes. “People are gaming the system. We put that because we wanted to leave our options open.”
Board member LaShundra Bryson Morsberger and McKeever advocated for allowing families to revisit their choices.
Atkins said schools would continue to work with families on a case-by-case basis.