Updated at 9 p.m. with the board’s vote
Albemarle County students will head back to the physical classroom in mid-March after the School Board voted 6-1 to move to the fourth stage of the division’s reopening plan.
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas recommended last week that the division move to Stage Four starting later this month. Board members voted to push back the start date by two weeks to March 15 in order to allow more time for employees to be fully vaccinated before working in-person.
“We realize again that this motion is probably not something that everybody likes, but it’s really the best that we can do I think given the circumstances,” board chairman Graham Paige said after the vote.
Thus far, 42.8% of employees working in-person in Stage Three or Four have received their first dose, according to data provided Thursday. Of the overall 2,012 employees, 90% have been able to either receive their first dose or are scheduled to do so by the end of February. Five employees have received both.
The division is working with the Blue Ridge Health District and the Charlottesville school division to schedule vaccine clinics specifically for school employees.
Board member Judy Le voted against the measure, saying that she supported having students back in school.
“But there are parts of this plan that deeply concern me,” she said. “And I’m concerned about their ramifications for our most marginalized students.”
Previous votes to reopen schools passed 4-3 with Le, Paige and board member Ellen Osborne dissenting.
“Our job tonight is to balance poor choices, balancing the concerns of our teachers with what we know from science," board member Kate Acuff said.
Before the discussion, the board heard from 25 people about reopening plans. Some wanted the division to move faster and provide more days of in-person instruction while others, mostly teachers, pushed for a delay.
"Please understand that currently reopening under stage four is a gamble," said Vernon Liechti, an Albemarle High School teacher. "It is not a sure thing that there will be no outbreaks in schools."
Other board members said the March 15 start was a compromise with employees who have asked the Board to hold off on the move to Stage Four until all staff members could receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think that everyone is going to be mad at the solution,” board member David Oberg said. “I suspect this is not gonna make anybody happy, which kind of tells me it’s probably the right one.”
Board members said several times in the discussion that they appreciated the hard work of teachers and employees this school year.
“I hope it’s never the message that we don’t appreciate the work that they are doing,” Board Vice-Chairwoman Katrina Callsen said.
Nearly 27% of teachers in the Albemarle County school division asked to continue working remotely if in-person classes expand, and about three-fourths of those requests were granted.
The data was provided ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
Teachers would have two days at their school to prepare for in-person learning and some students would start classes by Feb. 24 as part of a soft start to the stage, under Haas’ initial recommendation. All those who have opted for the hybrid model would start by March 1.
However, board members could still adjust that timeline. At previous meetings, some board members have said they preferred waiting until all employees working in-person have the chance to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine before starting Stage Four.
About 102 teachers and 10 school-based classified staff requested to work remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said that group makes up 7.6% of the teaching staff and 1.8% of school-based classified staff.
Officials said last week that 97% of the teacher requests and 90% of the classified staff requests were granted.
Employees also could request to work remotely for non-ADA reasons, which include being in a high-risk category as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; being a caretaker for a high-risk person; and childcare obligations or other concerns with working in-person during a pandemic.
About 254 teachers and 58 school-based classified staff requested to remain virtual for non-ADA reasons. That group makes up 18.8% of teachers and 10.5% of school-based classified staff.
Of those, 67% of teacher requests and 82% of classified staff requests were granted.
So far, about three employees have requested a leave of absence.
“As was done in the transition to Stage Three, the ability to accommodate each request was dependent on the choices that families made for their children (in-person or virtual) and the ability of principals to staff their school based on those decisions,” Giaramita said. “As such, there was variance in the number of accommodations approved across schools.”
Clare Keiser, the division’s assistant superintendent for organizational development and human resources leadership, said in an interview earlier this week that principals have been talking with their employees about their concerns and walking them through the mitigation measures.
“The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on people, both on their mental health and part of it in looking for some sense of normalcy,” Keiser said, adding that the number of staff members who have used the division’s employee assistance program has increased over the past year.
In addition to the two teacher workdays, the plan for Stage Four includes a range of professional development resources for teachers to use to prepare for in-person learning, Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said.
At secondary schools, teachers will likely have students learning in-person and at-home because of a range of factors including the endorsements of teachers to teach certain subjects.
In Stage Four, preschoolers through third-graders can go to school four days a week and middle and high school students can attend in-person two days a week. So far, about 56% of students have selected the hybrid model, though the division is planning for 70% to eventually opt in.
The initial survey results show that more white and affluent families picked the hybrid model and that schools in the western feeder pattern tend to have more students planning to come back into the buildings.
However, Collins said in an interview that those results from December are not final and that principals have seen an increase in families wanting to switch to in-person instruction.
Additionally, principals are working with families to address concerns with the hybrid model.
“But the schools have done the heavy lifting in that because, of course, they have the relationships, and the trust is there,” Collins said
Currently, some students have had the option for in-person classes as part of the third stage of the division’s reopening plan. Since the school year began, 35 students, 58 staff members and five contractors have tested positive, according to the division’s dashboard that tracks cases among those working and learning in-person.
About 33 students and three staff members are quarantining because of possible exposure to COVID-19. Two Albemarle County basketball teams saw their seasons end early because of the need to quarantine.
Division officials remain confident in the effectiveness of mitigation strategies such as masking and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus in schools.
There has been one outbreak of COVID-19 in the county schools. Two students and one staff member at Scottsville Elementary tested positive in that outbreak.
The division doesn’t have a plan to track the compliance of mitigation measures at each school, and officials said in an interview that concerns should be brought to the principal.
Rosalyn Schmitt, chief operating officer for the division, said in an interview said the division has worked to empower administrators and teachers to speak up if they see a problem.
“This is our community and the more we’re in this and feel like we can say something, we should,” Collins said.
One mitigation measure is social distancing and keeping students six feet apart in the classroom. The division doesn’t have an across-the-board cap on in-person or virtual classes.
“So as long as there’s about six feet in between the students, that is our cap,” Schmitt said. “I can’t give you a specific number. It depends on the size of the room.”