With elementary students in the city school division set to start in-person classes Monday, families at Charlottesville High and Buford Middle schools are wondering: What about them?
“Among me and my classmates, the effects of this vary from numbness and burnout to academic failure and depression,” Lidia Shimer, a junior at CHS, told the city School Board at its meeting Thursday of the nearly year-long closure. “The struggle is different for all of us, but the solution is the same: a return to in-person learning and support services.”
Currently, students who have been struggling with virtual learning have been invited back to CHS and Buford while keeping the virtual schedule intact as part of Option A, which is the model the board approved for in-person learning.
Late Thursday, the School Board voted 4-3 to bring back students in seventh grade and up for in-person classes April 12, after Spring Break. Those classes would be twice a week as part of the hybrid model that was proposed in early November. Division staff have retooled plans for in-person learning several times over the last few months, but with this vote, the board’s role in key reopening decisions might be done for the school year.
Board member Jennifer McKeever made the motion after hours of discussion about whether and how to restart in-person classes for middle and high school students with 66 days left in the school year. The hybrid model will lead to changes in the virtual learning schedule, and division administrators have the flexibility to make changes to the model as needed.
Board member Juandiego Wade was the tiebreaking vote, in favor of reopening.
Several board members said they were worried about students who have struggled this school year and wanted to bring them back so teachers could lay eyes on them.
"I’m feeling, really in my heart, that’s really the way that in the end that we need to go to actually make this work for all the kids that are really suffering," board member Sherry Kraft said.
Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, division administrators outlined plans for social events to bring students together outdoors as well as new mental health programs to provide opportunities for them socialize.
But board members questioned if students who were disengaged with school would even attend.
"Sometimes it’s hard to get off the couch in the middle of the pandemic," McKeever said.
Other board members, who voted against hybrid learning, wanted to give the current plan time to work and to let school leaders do what they think best. Concerns about transportation and staffing were also raised.
Thursday’s hours-long discussion pushed the meeting to six hours. The vote followed public comments from parents and students who described the challenges of virtual learning.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, the School Board hadn’t discussed plans for in-person classes at CHS and Buford since November. Earlier in the meeting, administrators from the two schools presented options to scale up Option A and said they were interested in expanding in-person classes.
During public comment Thursday, several parents and students weighed in on the plans for in-person learning at Charlottesville High and Buford Middle schools.
An item on the two schools’ return plans was added to the meeting agenda this week. Many parents emailed board members this week to express their concern with the lack of a plan.
“When return to in-person learning for CHS and Buford made the agenda for this meeting, we felt hopeful, but some of us learned that the administration and board currently have no plans to open classrooms this spring to all seventh through 12th grade students who need or want that option,” said Rachel Baker, a parent of a CHS freshman. “This is devastating to parents watching the educational, developmental and mental toll that remote learning is having on their kids.”
Parents and students who spoke wanted an explanation for why the division couldn’t offer in-person classes at Buford and CHS, especially with the Albemarle County school division opening up its upper schools later this month. They were also upset at the lack of communication from division and school administrators about their plans for the two schools.
“Please explain to your constituents, hopefully tonight, why Charlottesville can’t do the same or, better yet, please bring the kids back to school,” said Jocelyn Johnston, a city parent. “But if you can’t, explain why you can’t.”
Before Thursday’s meeting, the division had not outlined a plan to restart in-person classes for seventh-graders and up. In October, the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee presented a plan for two days of in-person classes. That plan was apparently shelved in December when division staff presented a scaled-back version of in-person classes to focus on its youngest students.
Board members were concerned about the amount of asynchronous learning in the hybrid schedule for middle and high school students. The proposed schedule outlined in November would include three asynchronous days per week; currently, students have one.
After that November discussion, Atkins presented Option A in December to eliminate in-person classes for Buford and CHS.
Atkins said before the presentation that school officials heard “loud and clear” about the desire for more face-to-face instruction.
She said they moved away from the hybrid model because the community was interested in maintaining the best parts of virtual instruction. But that was in November and December, when COVID-19 case numbers were higher and there was no vaccine.
“So I want to commend Buford and the high school on all of the work that you have done, your staffs have done, to get us to this point,” she said. “That does not put aside the fact that we have heard our community today and have to have more discussion about how we continue.”
Switching to the hybrid model would change how the schools deliver instruction virtually and require significant adjustments to accommodate more students in the building.
“But it is possible,” Atkins said.
Specific criteria for those invitations hasn’t been detailed but school administrators said they are focusing on English Language Learners, special education and students in the highest tier of supports.
That includes about 80 students at Buford and about 350 students at CHS. Buford Principal Jesse Turner said later during the meeting that he can bring in an additional 40 students.
He added that his vision is to work with the central office to bring in as many children as possible.
“Scaling up doesn’t have to stop at 120,” he said.
Turner added that the Buford staff is looking at a range of virtual and in-person activities to provide students with experiences outside of the normal instructional day.
At Buford, students will work in learning pods in either the gym or cafeteria and will be pulled into small groups for instructional support during the asynchronous learning time of the day. Adding 40 students would mean an additional pod in the school’s auditorium.
Kristen Pate said virtual learning has been difficult for her children, who have seen their grades fall, and one has experienced a mental health crisis. She has four children at four city schools.
“While I know there is value added for many of our students, especially those that I have heard have not logged into their Chromebooks since last March, struggling students upon whom this virtual learning scenario has taken its toll were left out of the equation,” she said.
CHS has the capacity to serve up to 400 students in the mornings who need academic and social-emotional support before the virtual day starts at 12:30 p.m. Those morning sessions will also focus on special education and English Language Learners, as well as WALK services for seniors. The WALK program is to help struggling seniors to graduate.
CHS Principal Eric Irizarry said several social events are in the works, such as grade-level picnics outside, activities for the senior class and building out enrichment activities on Fridays.
“There are a lot of events that are being planned right now to really help and make our students feel connected to Charlottesville High School, even though we know right now this plan does not allow them to come in like they would traditionally,” he said.
Shymora Cooper asked the board to consider a plan to reopen CHS and Buford and told members about how her child has struggled this last year and experienced a severe depressive episode.
“That’s been really challenging to me — to watch your son be so vibrant and now he’s a totally different child,” she said. “Academically, he’s doing well, but emotionally and mentally, he’s really, really, really, really, really struggling.”
Cooper also asked the board to consider the parents who are struggling to support their children and are in need of help and resources.
Lolly Lynch, a junior at CHS, said virtual school is “suffocating.”
“Students are doing work seven days a week,” she said. “We don’t get breaks anymore. With the copious amounts of homework assigned to us during the week, plus added assignments given to us for Friday and for the weekend, I cannot remember the last time I could relax.”
CHS students have seven classes this school year. Albemarle County high schools reduced the schedule to four per semester this year.
Lynch said her mental health has plummeted in the last year as she constantly worries about forgotten assignments, and described being haunted by virtual school.
“The amount I have cried over chemistry or panicked because I forgot that I had an AP Lang assignment is uncountable because it happens at least once a week now,” she said. “I should be my first priority right. I should put my own wellbeing first and take care of myself so I can keep pushing on, correct? Well, I can’t, because I don’t have the time, energy or motivation to because I have to keep my grades up. And it is not just me. It’s everyone that I know.”
Erica Uhlmann, a city parent, pointed to state guidance saying it’s safe to open schools with masking and other mitigation measures in place.
“We cannot afford to keep our children out of school for what would be a total of 18 months,” Uhlmann said. “… There is no amount of additional staff or funding that can fix the problem we will face in the fall if we don’t get these students back into a school building this year.”
To close out the first round of public comment, CHS teacher Andrew Manning thanked Irizarry for his work so far and said he understood the frustration of students.
“Whatever decision you make, we’re going to get through it, I promise,” Manning said. “And that’s for everybody’s on the call too. It’s all gonna be OK. Take a deep breath. We will get through it.”