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Haas says schools' reopening plan will keep students, teachers safe

Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matt Haas is confident that measures announced Thursday night will keep students and staff safe as the division plans to reopen schools and offer in-person instruction.

On Friday, the division asked employees to weigh in on the plan. Haas said he’s sensitive to the concerns of employees who are worried about returning to work.

“Even if the virus weren’t life threatening, it just doesn’t feel right to put people in a position where they’re going to become infected with a virus and have to go through that,” he said in an interview Friday in between helping the custodial crew at Western Albemarle High School. “I’m not hopeful — I know that if we put everything in place that we need to, and if everybody takes their own personal responsibility, then we’re going to be safe.”

Haas set a goal to substitute teach and work in different school support roles each year. The division plans to require masks for students and staff and to offer a mix of in-person and online classes for students in addition to other mitigation measures, such as physically distancing the students and increased hand-washing and cleaning, according to a plan released Thursday that was driven by building and school bus capacity. Two of three scenarios would have elementary students in class four days a week with at-home learning on Fridays. Middle and high school students would go to class one or two days a week.

Haas, who has a daughter in the school system, said he wouldn’t ask employees to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

“We’re going to do everything that’s legal, feasible, reasonable that we can do, given the unique resources that we have in Albemarle and the buildings that we have, to make sure that everyone’s going to be safe,” he said. “We just wouldn’t have school if we didn’t know that we could do it.”

The employee survey asks about their degree of comfort with returning to work for face-to-face instruction, their concerns, professional development needs and what else they would need to feel more comfortable.

Teachers criticized division leadership Thursday evening for not consulting them on the reopening plan.

The results of the survey and employee focus groups will be used to help draft the final reopening plan. The School Board has the final say on the plan and will make a decision during a special meeting July 30.

Board members encouraged division employees to complete the survey to better inform their decision about reopening.

Graham Paige, who was elected chairman of the School Board on Thursday after former chairman Jonno Alcaro resigned the post, wrote in a Facebook post that Haas and his team have worked extremely hard on the plan and that it would be a miracle to make everybody happy.

“This is an extremely hard decision but rest assured that Board Members will be basing their individual vote on what will be best for our students and all of our staff,” he wrote.

In a division survey about online learning during the spring, parents said they worried about students’ mental health as a result of the pandemic and broadly supported opening schools, according to a summary.

Haas said in the interview that that sees the urgency of having students, especially young children, back in school.

“If you’re a kindergarten student, you really had about two-thirds of the school year last year, and there are finite skills that those children need to learn so that they can be successful with the next steps in reading literacy and with their math skills,” he said. “Until those building blocks are in place, they’re not going to move forward.”

Katrina Callsen, who was elected vice-chairwoman, said during Thursday’s meeting that she appreciated the in-person option for parents because virtual learning wasn’t effective for all students.

“But I would say any space where it is effective to do it virtually, I absolutely agree,” Callsen said. “I think with high schoolers, there’s a lot more leniency. I’m only worried about the places where we’re going to be leaving students behind and letting them fall through the cracks.”

Plan Particulars

Those two scheduling options are similar to what the Charlottesville and Greene County school divisions have proposed.

Families will be asked to choose either the hybrid option or all-virtual classes starting July 20.

In a letter to families Friday, Haas said the division has been evaluating different teaching methods used during the spring after schools were ordered to close. For next school year, they’ll be opting for synchronous learning, which means students would join an online class at the same time as their peers and teacher.

Board member Ellen Osbourne, who represents the Scottsville magisterial district, wrote on Facebook that there’s no completely safe way to educate 14,000 kids in a pandemic.

“To lower the risk to our teachers and staff, we need families who can choose the virtual option to do so,” she wrote. “This will free up space for kids of essential workers and for those who don’t have good internet access. We also need you to decline bus service if you can.”

Sending all elementary students to school at the same time and seating them six feet apart would require use of art rooms, media centers and cafeterias as classrooms, according to the division’s reopening presentation. Some schools do not have adequate space to accommodate all students and secondary school facilities might have been needed.

Students who do attend school in-person will be grouped alphabetically to aid family scheduling, per the presentation.

If there’s a reduction in demand for school buses and adequate space in the schools, middle and high school students could go to in-person classes twice a week.

Older students also will be limited to four classes, which officials say would make it easier for students to build relationships with their teachers and receive immediate feedback.

The division is working with the Thomas Jefferson Health District to create a response plan in the event that there’s a positive COVID-19 case.


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