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Local schools plan for fall classes but await Northam's guidance

As local school systems wrap up the 2019-20 school year and look ahead to the fall, officials are drawing on lessons learned from the past two months.

“[Two months ago] we would’ve thought this was impossible,” city schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in an interview earlier this month.

Charlottesville and other area school divisions have together task forces to plan for three approaches for next school year — an all-online first semester, face-to-face classes or a hybrid method. For each of the scenarios, Atkins said teams are looking at what academic and emotional well-being supports would be needed as well as safety, equity and financial implications.

“We have committees that are working on how we move ourselves now to not only responding to COVID-19 but now to recovery,” Atkins said “How do we reassemble ourselves and prepare for the fall school opening?”

Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said in early May that Albemarle is planning for a blended learning approach that could include online learning and in-person classes in a staggered schedule and apply to all students.

“Because on the things we want to be cognizant of is what could happen,” she said. “We could come back, face to face, and then all of the sudden, we’re not face to face anymore. We want to plan for those realities, but we also want to learn from what we’ve done for the last six to nine weeks.”

Gov. Ralph Northam ordered school buildings closed for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, and so officials are looking to his office for specifics about when buildings can reopen and how schooling can resume. Northam is expected to make an announcement about reopening the schools June 2, though he said earlier this month that he was hopeful students would return to classrooms in the fall.

Kevin Owen, an Albemarle parent, advocated for the reopening decision to be a local one during public comment at the School Board’s May 14 meeting.

“We’re not Northern Virginia; we’re not Richmond,” Owen said. “I think everyone can agree it’s been an awful experience for all of us.”

Owen said that online schooling has been good, but it’s not the same thing as in-person classes. He’s also worried about his child’s mental health.

Not opening the schools would be an experiment in what could happen if kids are not allowed to socialize for nine months, he said.

A state working group tasked to figure out how to reopen is holding a series of forums this week to hear input from teachers and parents. Those forums wrap up June 4.

The Albemarle County Back to School Task Force is focused on four areas: maintaining healthy environments, healthy students, healthy employees and healthy learning. The group will compile its work into a central document that will be vetted by division advisory group and presented to the School Board on June 18, according to a division spokesman.

An Albemarle County survey on the online lessons closes May 31 and will help guide decision-making. The task force is primarily looking at school operations such as adhering to social-distancing guidelines, restrictions on gatherings and contingencies in the event a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.

County teachers who spoke at the May 14 meeting said they appreciated the focus on healthy students, but they wanted more mental health resources, information on job expectations for the next year and details about planned precautions.

“Educators are tired of staying at home, and we miss our students,” said Amy Gaertner, president of the Albemarle Education Association. “But this is still a deadly virus, and we want to know the students and staff are safe before schools are reopened.”

If schools reopen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended face masks for students and staff, setting up desks in the same direction and placing them 6 feet apart and spacing students out on buses. Use of the cafeterias and playgrounds should be staggered and the areas disinfected between groups or they should be closed, according to the interim guidance.

Charlottesville has tracked student participation and connectivity since new lessons began April 13.

“We’re learning so much,” Atkins said. “… The more data we can collect on what our students are doing and the experiences of our teachers, it’s going to be an invaluable resource to help us plan for the fall and to make online learning — should we have to do that — stronger and more meaningful.”

Students who miss three days of logging in are considered not connected, and division staff reach out to those children to assist.

Atkins said nearly 100% of the division’s students have been logging in for classes, but division staff were working in early May to gauge the engagement level.

“Teaches have done a remarkable job connecting with the students and with the families,” she said.

During the shutdown, Collins said schools have connected more strongly with a lot of parents, especially at the elementary school level, through weekly phone calls as part of a modified Check and Connect program.

“I think we’ve learned that we can connect with students without having them in the room with us,” Collins said. “… We’ve learned through this that that enthusiasm plays in a different way when you can’t be face to face, but it’s still there, and the children are so adaptable in a way that surprised us as educators.”

Collins, too, commended the teachers and students for their work during the shutdown.

In Albemarle County, officials say about 3 to 5% of students, depending on grade level, were not engaged in ongoing learning at the beginning of the digital quarter. A students is counted as not engaged if they haven’t turned in any assignment, Collins said at the School Board’s May 7 meeting.

She added that those numbers have decreased as principals and school staff reached out to families.

Collins said the school system has learned a lot about its learning management systems, which teachers use to communicate with students and parents about grades and to post assignments and lessons.

To switch all classes online, the division implemented a new system, SeeSaw, at the elementary level though some schools were already piloting it. For middle and high schools, this was the first year of Schoology, which replaced Blackboard.

“We should take advantage of those systems and platforms,” Collins said. “I think how we do that is with a blended learning environment, so that you are ready for anything that could happen.”


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