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City schools aiming for January in-person start

Preschoolers through sixth-graders in Charlottesville could be back in the classroom by mid-January after schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins adopted an advisory committee’s recommendation for restarting in-person classes.

Atkins discussed her formal recommendation with School Board members Thursday. Students at Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools could start Feb. 1 with in-person classes twice a week.

The younger students will have four days of classes, starting with a phased return Jan. 11, per Atkins’ recommendation, which is contingent on the health district’s recommendations and data on local COVID-19 cases. The division is planning to create a dashboard tracking the city’s case numbers as well as school division-specific data.

The city’s case incidence rate as well as the percent of positive cases have been declining in recent days. On Thursday, the city’s positivity rate was at 1% and 201 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days.

The city schools released details on Atkins’ recommendation earlier this week as well as logistical details related to starting in-person schools. The board will vote on the proposal Nov. 19, and then make a final decision Dec. 16 after reviewing the latest COVID-19 data and school preparations.

Students have had online classes since the school year started Sept. 8.

Yet, more details about exactly how staffing the schools will work remain up in the air, as well as what the at-home learning days will look like, especially for middle and high school students. Atkins said the staffing decisions and who can continue to teach remotely depend on the number of families who opt for in-person classes.

The School Board heard about the committee’s recommendation at the end of last month, and most members appeared supportive of the plan then and during Thursday’s meeting. The Thomas Jefferson Health District also has been supportive of the division’s reopening plans.

“Safety is our priority, and making sure that we respond to the needs of our students and our staff,” Atkins said. “Getting through this incredibly difficult time in the safest way possible is certainly a priority.

Board members also had a range of questions about Atkins’ recommendation and discussed different options for staff who don’t want to work in-person. The division will provide more information at the next meeting before the vote.

“I think the optimal word is flexibility,” Atkins said. “With this there are some structures that we have to put in place. But beyond that, flexibility is going to be what will make this successful and help us to manage and move through January through June.”

Students might have new teachers in January as the division wants to create two distinct group of in-person and online-online elementary students rather than trying for a hybrid option where virtual students watch a livestream of an in-person class. Teacher reassignments would occur for both groups, the division said.

For virtual instruction at the middle and high schools, the division said they are gathering information on different models on whether students would Zoom into classes with in-person instruction.

Families are asked to pick a learning model — hybrid or online-only — in a binding intent form by Nov. 13. Atkins said that because of the complexities of staffing and scheduling in the in-person classes, they can’t allow families to switch back and forth, though they’ll consider students on a case-by-case basis.

The survey for families was sent Nov. 3, and staff members will receive their survey Friday.

“I feel like requiring such rigidity with the binding intent form with so little detail offered is a hard position to put both staff and parents,” said Beth Ike, a city parent.

The division said it’s working with community partners to make sure families are aware about the form as well as reaching out directly to families. Information about the plan and form will also be included in meals that the division is delivering to students daily.

That information is available in English and six different languages, Atkins said.

Division staff members will use the results of the intent form to plan for in-person classes and craft school bus routes. Capacity on school buses is limited to about 600 students across the division.

Board members will hear about the results at their next meeting.

“I need parents and advocates of parents to understand how important the intent form is,” board chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said. “I’m afraid we are going to miss families.”

Board member LaShundra Bryson Morsberger asked about staffing for specialized classes in which there’s maybe only one teacher.

“I’m not going to be able to give you a specific response to that question,” Atkins said. “Those are the details that we will work out. That’s our next step.”

So far, 34 staff members have submitted requests for medical accommodations to continue working remotely. Other employees also can request to work remotely, though those will be considered after the medical-related requests and will depend on the number of families who decide to return to schools.

Board discussed ways they can adjust leave options for staff members who request accommodations to continue teaching virtually. Atkins said they could bring back a policy in December to do that.

“My team is ready to work as hard as we possibly need to to match those things up and put people in the right places and to make sure staff feel comfortable and protected as well as still meeting the needs of students,” said Keith Hubbard, the division’s director of human resources.


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