A move to stage Four for Albemarle County schools is not “a foregone conclusion,” schools Superintendent Matt Haas said Thursday, but division staff are putting together a team to draft more detailed plans for a potential shift to that stage, which would give all students the option of some in-person classes.
Haas and schools staff discussed the planning process with School Board members Thursday during their monthly business meeting. Breaking from a previous timeline, division staff proposed pushing back the decision for the third quarter to mid-January in order to allow more time for planning.
After a brief discussion about that change, board members decided to stick with the proposed timeline, meaning that Haas will make a recommendation Jan. 14 and the board will decide Jan. 21.
“I think that’s to make sure that we are doing the very best job that we can; that’s why the timetable was changed,” board chairman Graham Paige said.
Stage Four wouldn’t start until early February under that timeline.
The division started the second quarter earlier this week in Stage Three, which allowed for in-person classes twice a week for preschoolers through third-graders. There are five stages to the division’s reopening plan with the fifth stage being in-person classes for all students following a more typical attendance schedule alongside a virtual learning option.
The Charlottesville School Board will vote next week on a plan to start in-person classes for elementary students in mid-January. Middle and high school students would go back to school twice a week starting Feb. 1, the start of the third quarter. The board will review the local COVID-19 data before making a final decision in mid-December.
Haas said that slowing down the timeline was out of consideration for teachers and that involving them in planning for Stage Four would be key.
Since the summer, a chorus of teachers have been critical of the division’s approach to reopening schools and criticized their lack of involvement in planning efforts.
“A lot of the feedback we received on the last time that we made a recommendation and we moved forward on it was that teachers had just been starting to hit their stride with virtual learning, and that it was very disruptive,” Haas said. “So we were just trying to be sensitive, and not all of a sudden ramping things up again to make possibly another recommendation.”
The division has identified six factors but no metrics for the decision. The factors include state and federal guidance, current COVID-19 conditions in the area, ability to staff the schools and the district’s testing capacity.
The planning effort includes four teams focusing on operations, human resources, policy and instruction.
“Some of the most consistent feedback that we heard from our community and from our staff when we moved to stage three was that our operational and instructional plans weren’t quite detailed enough for families and staff members to make informed decisions about returning to school,” said Patrick McLaughlin, the division’s chief of strategic planning.
The team will present a report next month.
Haas said that now is the time to be flexible as they approach what school looks like including changing the start date for the second semester to allow for Stage Four with the new semester rather than a few weeks in.
“Our primary consideration … will be the safety and well being of the students, and we can adjust everything else around that,” Haas said.
The division launched a COVID-19 support hotline Wednesday, which will help connect families in need with resources to support their needs such as food or mental health.
Those in need of assistance should call (434) 972-1618 or email SupportForFamilies@k12albemarle.org
The hotline is not for emergencies and callers can expect a response within one business day, according to the presentation.
Haas said the school division received a donation from the Public Education Foundation and Charlottesville-Albemarle to assist with meeting the needs of families.
Since launching the hotline, the division has received six requests, which were all in Spanish.
“They asked for a variety of assistance from the school system, which we are able to accommodate,” Haas said, adding that assisting families might also involve connecting them with a school counselor.