The Albemarle County School Board on Thursday will hear a proposal Thursday to move the division to Stage Three of its reopening plan, meaning preschoolers through third-graders could go to class twice a week starting Nov. 9.
School Superintendent Matt Haas discussed his recommendation Wednesday at a news conference. He cited the results of a recent parent survey, the implementation of recommended mitigation strategies and the lack of widespread outbreaks in schools that have offered in-person classes as key factors in his decision.
“What makes me confident that our students and staff are safe in our schools is the data I collected from Region V,” he said, referring to the state education region that Albemarle County is part of. “With 20 school systems and 23,000 students attending daily, there have been three outbreaks since school started.”
Since the first day of school, fewer than five employees and no students have tested positive for COVID-19 and the cases have not been connected to the schools, Haas said.
“The quick and responsible action by our employees and our health department when an employee has tested positive proves that high quality and reliable contact tracing not only is possible in our division but it is working,” he said.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District handles all case investigations but works with the school divisions in that effort. As of Wednesday, there were no outbreaks in K-12 schools, according to the health district.
The School Board is aware of the recommendation, and Haas said he wanted to announce it before Thursday’s meeting so parents, teachers and others would know what’s on the table for discussion.
About 65% of parents said in a survey that closed Tuesday that they would send their students back to school, and 43.6% reported that their students haven’t been as successful academically this year. But 60% of teachers said the division should continue with all virtual classes and 93% said they have been somewhat to highly effective with virtual learning.
Under Stage Three, about 5,000 students would be eligible for in-person classes or access to the buildings. Parents can continue with all-virtual classes, though though the specifics of that plan are still in the works.
The division said in a presentation that the hybrid schedule will allow for half of the student population in the building at once, making the transition to face-to-face classes easier as well as the implementation of health protocols such as social distancing and the daily COVID-19 screenings.
Masks will be required. Students will be kept in small groups during the school day and eat meals together, though Haas didn’t say at what number those groups would be capped at. The class size will be determined by the space in the classroom as well as the number of students who opt for in-person classes.
Students in high school can participate in athletics or in-person extracurricular activities upon approval. Schools have to submit a plan to the division for each sport and activity.
In-person access to online classes will continue for two groups of students with disabilities, English Language Learners and those in fourth through 12th grade who have exhibited a lack of engagement in the virtual experience. Additionally, students in sixth grade and older will continue with all virtual classes.
The division said on its Return to School webpage that principals are working with staff to set explicit criteria for lack of engagement.
“Generally, schools will rely on attendance and completion of assignments as key indicators of engagement,” the division said on the webpage. “Teachers will refer students who demonstrate a lack of engagement to a committee for consideration.”
Local COVID-19 numbers
As of Thursday, Albemarle County has had 172 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days. That case incidence rate is considered higher risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county’s percent of positive cases over the last two weeks — another CDC core indicator — is at 5.1%, which is considered moderate risk.
“Research tells us that this number is being significantly influenced by what is happening at [the University of Virginia] and not in our schools,” Haas said, adding that the Thomas Jefferson Health District supports the division’s plan.
When deciding to start the school year online, officials in Albemarle and Charlottesville school divisions said they were concerned about the return of UVa students and how that would affect local case numbers. UVa has reported 840 cases among students so far, accounting for 90% of all affiliated cases. On Tuesday, the university extended restrictions on travel and the size of gatherings for another two weeks in order to curb the spread of the virus.
The division has identified six factors, though no specific metrics, to use in making a decision about moving to another stage. Haas said none of those factors currently prevent a move to Stage Three.
“Experience has shown that this board’s measured approach on July 30 was the right step, and it tells us now that this is the right time to take another measured step forward,” Haas said.
Neither the factors nor the current plan calls for regular COVID-19 testing of employees and students.
The Albemarle Education Association, which represents county teachers, has proposed health benchmarks for each stage based on information from Harvard’s Global Health Institute, federal guidance and other analysis. Current conditions don’t meet the association’s standard for Stage Three.
In July, after the division proposed a two-day schedule for all students, teachers pushed back on that plan, citing fears of the virus and concerns about the quality of in-person learning that follows mitigation measures such as social distancing. That outcry led officials to draft an online-only plan.
Haas said that he understands the fear among staff and that there are many legitimate concerns out there about health and safety.
“Obviously, everyone should take the virus seriously,” he said. “We will not be able to do this effectively unless everyone in our community practices the CDC recommended strategies: wearing masks, sanitizing your hands, washing your hands, social distancing and staying away from big crowds.”
Haas said the division will have enough staff members to make Stage Three possible. About 40% of teachers said they would request to continue teaching remotely and 11% said they would request a leave of absence if required to work in person.
About 47% of the 610 classified staff who responded to the survey said they would request to work remotely, primarily because of health or childcare-related reasons.
Staff members who work with preschool through third-graders will be working in the buildings along with some special education teachers and teaching assistants, English as a Second Language teachers and those working in the childcare program or as learning coaches.
Most of the division’s licensed staff, which includes teachers, responded to the survey while 6,413 parents took the survey. The results provided Wednesday did not break down answers by a parent’s race, socioeconomic status or the grade of their children, because that information wasn’t collected. Parents of students in third-grade or younger made up 39% of the respondents.
Several area school divisions have reopened under a similar hybrid model. Charlottesville City Schools has not yet made a decision about the second quarter.