The Charlottesville School Board delved into an advisory committee’s recommendation Thursday to continue with online classes until January and mulled other logistics as they get ready to make a decision next month about reopening.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins has not adopted the committee’s recommendation. The School Board will hear her recommendation at its Nov. 5 meeting. Board members discussed at the end of Thursday’s meeting holding a second meeting in November to vote on the recommendation.
With the University of Virginia’s announcement Thursday that spring semester will begin Feb. 1, board chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said the school system has an opportunity to get students back into schools.
“I’m so grateful that they’re leaving at Thanksgiving and not coming back again until probably Feb. 1,” she said. “Hopefully, that will give us some opportunity to get some in-person instruction for our students, at least our younger ones as soon as practical, as soon as our buildings and staff are ready.”
Earlier this month, the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee recommended that students continue with online classes until January. Starting a week after winter break, preschoolers through sixth-graders could attend in-person classes for either four or two days a week, depending on family preferences, staffing and space. Students in seventh grade and older would start their in-person classes in February.
Before making a decision, board member Lashundra Bryson-Morsberger wanted to know the results of family surveys and the number of staff members who would be comfortable returning to the buildings.
Other board members agreed.
“I’d hate for us to be surprised last minute with either resignations or positions that we couldn’t fill,” board member Lisa Larson-Torres said.
The committee decided to not start in-person classes until January to give division staff time to prepare the schools to follow recommended mitigation strategies, and 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, the uncertain impact of the coming flu season and disruptions and travel around Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
The committee left open the option of starting sooner if the classroom spaces and staff were ready. Three subcommittees developed recommendations for elementary and secondary schools and school facilities.
The January start is contingent on making sure the buildings are ready, said Christine Esposito, a gifted resources teacher at Johnson Elementary and member of the advisory committee.
“If principals felt like they could do this more quickly, then I think we’d be on board with that but our feedback seemed to be that it would be really difficult to have everything done prior to [winter] break,” Esposito said. The virtual learning center at Walker Upper Elementary would not affect that timeline, she said.
Students will be in A and B groups, attending school on alternating days. For scheduling purposes, committee members want the division to keep students from one family in the same group. The all-virtual option is still available to families.
Placing a priority on clarity and equity, committee members wanted to see a range of protocols and procedures and time for teachers to transition to face-to-face learning before schools reopen.
For example, the 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 division is currently developing such protocols for schools to follow, and committee members wanted those available to families before they decide on a model. Supplies needed to implement the recommended mitigation strategies have been acquired.
“Communication from the division needs to be clear to all parties,” said John Wells, a parent on the committee. “Staff, teachers and families need to understand what they are agreeing to ahead of time.”
Committee members also emphasized the need to give teachers time to plan for the switch.
“Teachers are having to learn a lot while also doing virtual learning and moving out to the classroom, getting spaces ready and learning so many new protocols that I think many of us never thought we would have to learn on,” said Caitlin Natale, a teacher at Clark Elementary and committee member. “We want to do it right and we want to do it as safely as possible. Making sure that we are giving teachers time to do that and feel good about bringing our kids back into our buildings, I think is going to go a long way.”
The elementary schools are planning an orientation for students to experience the new environment and routines in small groups rather than as a whole school. The committee recommended a similar orientation for the middle and high school students.
The orientations, starting Jan. 11, would phase in student groups and provide the opportunity for a smaller scale dry run for staff of school-wide protocols and routines for transportation, meals and health screenings. All students of the first group of students would be in the building by Jan. 21.
With smaller classes with 10 to 12 students, the division doesn’t have enough current classroom teachers to support face-to-face classes if more than 55% of students return to school, according to the presentation.
To support face-to-face instruction for more students, the division would have to repurpose staff to teach classes in-person and virtually.
The division is expecting to use all classroom spaces for face-to-face classes as well looking at the potential use of large spaces such as the libraries or gyms.
Atkins said that when they ask families to pick a model, they’ll make clear the limited school and transportation capacity.
“I’m blown away by the thoroughness of the subcommittees,” board member Sherry Kraft said. “I feel like our community can feel confident that we will have the necessary safety protocols and preparations in place. It’s a little bit daunting, but I really appreciate all of your work on this.”
Other board members also applauded the work of the advisory committee.
“The work that you have done on this is simply amazing,” board vice-chairwoman Leah Puryear said. “I’m going to spend whatever time it takes between now and Nov. 5 to make the best decision for everyone involved.”
Puryear spoke before board members indicated that they wanted to hold a second meeting to make a final decision.