Before the Charlottesville School Board decides how to open schools again, members want to see more information about virtual learning and all-online options, as well as hear from public health officials.
“In any given moment, after the [University of Virginia] students come back into our town, the local numbers are going to be really different than they are right now,” said Jennifer McKeever, chairwoman of the board. “And I just want to make sure that we are 100% prepared for that potential worst-case scenario.”
Currently, division officials have proposed sending elementary students to school four days a week, while students in seventh grade and up would go to class two days a week, a model informed by a division survey of parents and staff. However, teachers and other staff members have pushed for all classes to be online. Parents also can opt for all online classes.
“Equity has to look like keeping people safe and finding the best ways to do virtual learning while we have the time and the resources and the planning to do it instead of planning for being open,” board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger said.
Nearly half of the parents surveyed rated distance learning during the spring closure as either 1 or 2, with 5 meaning very good for the circumstances.
Teachers have said that online learning could be better for next school year if they have the time to plan and apply lessons learned from the spring.
“Part of the reason it was a challenge in the spring was that we went from zero to 60 basically over a weekend, and we were really making changes as we moved along,” Tess Krovetz, a second grade teacher at Jackson-Via, said in an interview last week.
The School Board also will hear from officials from the Thomas Jefferson Health District on July 30, when the board meets to further discuss reopening plans.
Among the unresolved issues from Monday’s five-hour meeting, board members want more clarity about the spread of COVID-19 in the community; protocols for closing schools if there’s a local outbreak or positive case; and which metric they would use to feel comfortable resuming in-person classes.
“If our trends are going up, then at what point do we say we can no longer be considering the in-person model,” board member Sherry Kraft said.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said the state guidance so far is to use local trend data, along with the survey results, to make a decision about whether to open the buildings or remain online.
On Tuesday, the health district reported 11 new cases and four more deaths. However, the percent of positive local cases over seven days is slightly below the state average, at 5.8%.
Board member Leah Puryear asked Atkins about the pros and cons of remaining all-online to start the school year.
Atkins said they would have to go back through the entire presentation and review the state and federal recommendations, survey responses and other data.
Atkins also cautioned the board that any model for reopening might not be the one used throughout the school year.
Most parents who responded said students should be in school more than two days a week, and a majority of the parents said they would send their child to school under any plan. Nearly 80% of the 1,035 parents who took the survey online were white, so the results are not reflective of the division’s overall student demographics.
Half of the employees who responded said most students shouldn’t be in school.
About 37% of families said they had no problem accessing the online programs. The biggest struggle with distance learning was that children missed the face-to-face interactions with their peers and teachers.
Krovetz, at Jackson-Via, said that given her experience in the spring, she thinks schools would be able to start the fall with a much more solid and easier to implement distance learning plan.
“I certainly learned a great deal from it about what the challenges are and how to adjust what I do to reach my kids,” she said.
The division is planning to switch elementary teachers to a new learning management system that’s already in use at Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools.
Professional development on that new system will be available to teachers next week, officials said Monday.
Atkins told board members that division staff members are working on a virtual learning plan for next year that will include more structure for students, such as a set number of hours for students to engage with a teacher and clear expectations.
“I think that was the message that we heard loud and clear from our community — that the synchronistic teaching seemed to work much better for students than the asynchronous,” she said.
Synchronistic teaching would involve a live class taught online, for example, while asynchronistic means a lesson is recorded ahead of time for the student.
Christine Esposito, a gifted-resource teacher at Johnson Elementary, said both options should be offered to students to make it more effective.
“I think there needs to be a lot more small-group stuff,” she said. “The fourth grade held weekly group chats for the whole fourth grade, and they were so much fun and it got the kids engaged. We need to find ways to extend that to the academic piece.”
Esposito added that if the school year starts virtually, then maybe teachers could go to community centers to work with students.
During the closure, she wrote and led social studies lessons for the fourth grade and provided optional challenging math problems and puzzles to students. She also dropped off packets to families who requested more resources.
“I think this is an opportunity to really think about what do kids need, and in this environment, how can we make education better?” she said.