Charlottesville City Schools has dialed back its plans to restart in-person classes next month with a focus on providing classes to its youngest learners and assistance to students in need.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said during Thursday’s School Board meeting that the revamped Option A would maintain the quality of the virtual program and the amount of synchronous learning time and bring select students into buildings.
Under the new model, students in preschool through second-grade would start in-person classes Jan. 19 as would those in special education and English-language learners, among other groups.
The School Board unanimously approved starting the model, which didn’t specify when in-person classes would start for third- through sixth-graders. The board will meet Jan. 7 to review the latest COVID-19 case numbers before face-to-face instruction begins, leaving the door open for the timeline to change.
“I think this is a great starting place and addresses some inequities,” board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger said.
The School Board has repeatedly grappled with how to offer in-person classes, with each discussion leading to more questions and changes to the plans. Board members also have sought more firm guidance from the state on when it would be safe to reopen. Aside from recommending the CDC indicators, that guidance has not materialized.
“There is no set document that says if this, this, this, this happens, open school,” said Bath Baptist, the division’s coordinator of Career and Technical Education and COVID-19 liaison to the health district.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District has supported the division’s reopening plans. No outbreaks have been reporting in K-12 schools in the district.
At the recommendation of the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee, the board also is planning to meet every two weeks after Jan. 7 to review the case numbers and other data points until all students have the option for in-person classes.
Atkins is watching in particular the city’s case incidence rate, or the total of new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days. The rate is currently 365.8, which is the lowest of the five localities in the health district.
Atkins said she would like the city’s case incidence rate to be closer to 200, or trending down toward that number. Charlottesville hasn’t been below 200 since late August.
Case numbers have climbed steadily in the Thomas Jefferson Health District in December. A total of 1,043 new cases have been reported, setting a new record. Hospitalizations also have increased by 56.
Atkins said she’s concerned by the current trends and that the case numbers haven’t peaked yet. Currently, Charlottesville’s number of cases is in the highest-risk category, though the positivity rate is in the lowest-risk category, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since October, the School Board had discussed a plan that would bring back all preschool through sixth-grade students starting Jan. 11 for classes four days a week and start twice a week in-person classes for middle and high school students in early February. That’s now Option B and remains of one the division’s goals.
The School Board was supposed to make a final decision on that plan before Atkins presented Option A.
Board chair Jennifer McKeever said she wanted more information about the division’s plans to get the other elementary grades back into the buildings. That information will be provided Jan. 7.
She acknowledged that the plan kicks the can further down road on when in-person classes will actually begin.
“I do want to make a commitment to the public that we want to get our students back, especially the youngest, and the most vulnerable of our students,” she said.
At all levels, Option A would require fewer students and staff to be in the buildings, giving administrators more flexibility. The option was changed in response to concerns raised at School Board meetings and from families as well as rising COVID-19 case numbers.
“We cannot accommodate all of the students back in the building,” Atkins said. “This allows us to plan for bringing in those targeted groups that we know will perform better if they have the face-to-face instruction.”
Under Option B, school administrators would have to use all of their classroom spaces and most of their staff for in-person classes.
“Having fewer people in the building allows us to more safely do some of the things that are just a regular part of an elementary school day and have a little more normalcy,” Venable Elementary principal Erin Kershner said.
At the elementary schools and Walker Upper Elementary, the plan is to offer in-person classes for different groups of students. At Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools, some students would come into the buildings for more assistance but virtual classes would remain the same.
M. C’ta Mitchelson-DeLaurier, assistant principal at Buford, said that this option helps support students who are not engaging with virtual learning.
There is no easy way to re-start in-person instruction, McKeever said.
“If we talk to 100 people, we will get 100 different opinions, and I just really want to clarify for this community how difficult it is,” she said.
McKeever added that conversations about reopening have been and continue to be challenging.
“Option A is a step in the right direction to getting students back into schools,” said Madelyn Packer, a student representative on the board.
OPTION A DETAILS
In a November survey, about 66% of families chose the division’s hybrid learning option, now referred to as Option B. The division is not planning to distribute another survey about the new model. Atkins said that families should only request a change if it’s absolutely necessary.
“It’s not a perfect plan; it’s not one that everyone will embrace, or fit everyone’s schedule,” Atkins said. “However, it is one that has sought and received a great deal of input from our stakeholders and our teachers internal and external stakeholders.”
Teachers will be given the week of Jan. 11 to prepare, while students will work on asynchronous activities. Implementation of Option A will vary by school, according to the presentation.
At CHS, students in a targeted group would go into the building from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and then virtual classes would start after lunch, as they have this school year.
About 100 to 150 students would be in the building once a day, CHS principal Eric Irizarry said. That group would include English-Language learners, those in special education and those who are struggling, as determined by a range of school data.
The previously proposed model would have required changing the virtual learning schedule for those who selected that option.
At Buford, about 70 to 80 students would be in the building each day. Teachers would work with students during the day in smaller groups, as needed.
At the elementary level, the school day will be akin to a traditional day, with students arriving before 8 a.m. and leaving in the afternoon. Lunch will be served in the classroom, but there will be recess.
The use of staffing and how art, music, P.E. and library would run will vary by school. No visitors will be allowed in buildings.
Students in the buildings will have to wear masks and follow other COVID precautions such as social distancing and temperature checks.
The school division has worked since the summer to implement mitigation measures to reduce the risk of transmission, including increased sanitation protocols and improving the air filtration and ventilation measures.