Faced with rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the area and elsewhere and a slew of other concerns, the Charlottesville School Board is torn about how to reopen to students in the fall.
How to reopen schools should be a community decision, Superintendent Rosa Atkins said during Monday’s board meeting, which focused on plans for the coming academic year.
Before Monday’s meeting, more than 150 staff members signed on to an open letter that asks the board and superintendent to opt for a virtual start to the school year, among other requests. At the other end of the spectrum, a group of parents penned an open letter last week seeking full-week in-person classes.
Last week, the division shared a new attendance plan for the coming year that would send elementary students to school four days a week with at-home learning on Fridays. Students in seventh grade and up would go to school two days a week, with at-home learning on the remaining days. The initial plan was to have all students go to school two days a week.
Parents also can choose an all-online option.
Atkins said the current plan follows all state and federal guidelines for reopening schools, which are rapidly changing. Monday’s presentation focused on a summary of last month’s community survey, the attendance option and virus mitigation measures planned for school buildings.
Masks will be required for students and staff, except for those who can’t wear them because of medical conditions. Students and staff will be asked to provide their own masks, though the division will have them available, as well as face shields.
“Even with all the measures we’re putting into place, we will not create a risk-free environment,” Atkins said, adding that safety is paramount.
The division also is planning to push back the first day of school to Sept. 8, following the Albemarle County Schools Board’s lead.
A number of parents and teachers spoke during the meeting’s first public comment session, with some in favor of more in-person class days and others wanting more virtual options.
The board had planned to vote on the plan July 16, but that was pushed back to give members more time to make a decision and hear more from teachers.
Jennifer McKeever, chairwoman of the School Board, said she appreciated everyone’s ideas.
“I cannot imagine trying to come up with something in this unprecedented environment that will serve the needs of 4,500 children, which is what we’re trying to do,” she said. “… But we cannot continue to do it alone and we cannot continue to be asked to bear the burden of this.”
Board member Leah Puryear said this will be the most difficult decision she’s ever made in her tenure on the board.
“There’s no right decision,” she said, adding that she sees it as a life-and-death situation. “I’m very concerned with the health and safety of people on the front line. Those are the people who are going to be educating our students. I’m also very concerned about our children and their health.”
Puryear said she didn’t know how she would sleep at night if anyone in the buildings became infected with the virus or died.
James Bryant and other board members said the division needs to survey teachers and other staff members about reopening plans.
Emily Little, a parent of a Burnley-Moran Elementary student, said during public comment that she appreciated the work that went into the reopening plans.
“We have to think of where these children are going beyond the school community and beyond the walls of the school, and whether they’re safer at school from coronavirus than they are in the places and spaces where they may have to go,” she said.
Little added that the two-day option made her nervous because students might have to interact with more people as their parents piece together childcare for the other three days.
Jamie Conklin, another parent, said he would prefer starting out virtual and then phasing in more in-person days.
Board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger said the four-day week spreads the division’s resources too thin and that there are too many unknowns about the virus to send people back to school.
“I think that we need to take this time to do the best plan that we can for virtual learning, and I think that that’s the direction instead of losing time now talking about a plan that probably, in all honesty, in September will just be a distant memory,” she said.
Shannon Gillikin, a kindergarten teacher at Jackson-Via Elementary, worked with other teachers to draft the letter in order to give staff members a voice. They’re worried about the state of the pandemic, the health and safety of teachers and students and having enough planning time for a virtual option.
“I’ve been very quick to say this is about kids, and we all want our kids to be safe,” said Gillikin, who has three young children, two of whom are school-age.
Gillikin wrote in the letter that reopening businesses and social venues puts teachers and students at risk. Other states have seen cases increase significantly after reopening businesses and restaurants.
“It is highly likely that we will return to virtual learning at some point for some length of time,” she wrote. “We are asking you to prioritize the safety of our teachers and students, as well as give us the best possible chance to teach well in a virtual environment.”
Staff members also are seeking a metric to determine when it is safe to have face-to-face classes, among other requests in the letter, which also includes more than 20 questions about reopening plans.
Some concerns from parents about next school year are that distance learning during the spring didn’t go well and that they are worried about the quality of education if school continues online.
In an interview, Gillikin said teachers learned a lot about virtual learning in the spring when they had two weeks to switch instruction online. Planning for a virtual start would give the division time to start problem-solving, she said.
“Teachers need training on Canvas, time to create and plan effective lessons with our teams, and the chance to put our creative energy towards some of the equity issues raised during the March-June period,” she wrote in the letter. “We have the time and energy — we need your leadership.”
Christine Esposito, a gifted-resource teacher at Johnson Elementary, said she didn’t sign the letter because she’s not convinced that a virtual start is necessary. In a lengthy Facebook post, she addressed a variety of concerns, from the supply of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to the lack of robust, widespread COVID-19 testing.
In an interview, she said she’s concerned about classrooms without windows and how the division can adjust to the new reality without more funding.
“It’s being assumed that the school can just do this,” she said. “… I don’t know that everybody understands that we are being asked to do much more with less.”