Albemarle County Public Schools is sticking with a plan to look at COVID-19 data on Wednesday, Jan. 27 and decide whether to reopen in-person classes to some students. Teachers, parents and School Board members asked the division Wednesday for less back-and-forth about the status of in-person learning.
Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said that after two weeks of all-virtual classes that start Tuesday, the division will look at the COVID-19 data and decide whether to restart Stage Three, which allows for preschoolers through third-graders to have in-person classes twice a week.
“The numbers always are driving this, but we are not anticipating at this point that we will be in Stage 1 for an extended period of time,” Giaramita said. “In fact, it’s conceivable that January 27 may be the only time this issue comes up.”
As of Friday, only school divisions in Greene and Fluvanna counties are offering in-person instruction. With 1,742 new cases reported so far, January has been the second-worst of the pandemic. The health district’s positivity rate has also started to decline after reaching a recent high of 10.5%.
Earlier this week, schools Superintendent Matt Haas announced the switch back to all-virtual classes — three days after in-person classes resumed following a winter break hiatus — and said that the decision to resume Stage Three would be made every Wednesday starting on Jan. 27 until students were back in the buildings.
That’s a different decision from whether to expand in-person classes to all students, which board members also discussed during Thursday’s meeting.
Speakers at Thursday’s School Board said that the recent changes in classes were disruptive and made it difficult to plan for childcare.
“What I heard from some of those parents, and what I’ve experienced, is just so much fluctuation in what we’re doing is almost impossible to stay on top of it,” board vice-chairwoman Katrina Callsen said.
School Board member Judy Le echoed those concerns.
“Sometimes that flexibility of thinking of things week to week, just within the three to one, is harder for parents and caregivers who have less flexible jobs, and I know that we have a lot of those,” Le said.
Haas said his goal is to get students into the buildings whenever they can, adding that the new guidance from the state supports that stance.
“The direction from The Virginia Department of Education, which I agree with, is that we should take every inch we can get to bring children into schools who want to be there,” he said.
On Thursday, the Virginia Department of Education said that school reopenings during the fall have shown that in-person classes can be offered safely if several factors are in place, such as a mask requirement and social distancing. Additionally, school officials were told to take into account how the virus’ spread in a community was affecting their ability to offer classes.
The state has still left the decision in the hands of local officials.
Jessica Maslaney, CEO of the Piedmont Family YMCA, said the changes have made it challenging to plan for virtual learning centers. The organization is serving 120 Albemarle County students at its Brooks Family center as well as 80 children in its early learning program.
“Our challenge is that frequent movement between stages makes it very difficult for our staff to plan and support synchronous and asynchronous learning and for us to maintain isolated ‘pods’ of 10 children to limit cross-contact,” she said. “It is also very disruptive for students and staff. It is affecting our staffing, when we cannot guarantee consistent employment with week-to-week schedules.”
Maslaney also described her experience as a parent of a second-grader and the schedule changes during the second quarter — the first with in-person instruction.
“During this second quarter, she has only attended nine days of in-person instruction and as an 8-year old, has had to navigate a complex constantly changing schedule, never able to settle into a routine,” she said.
Malsaney requested that the division reconsider the week-to-week decision making and identify a reopening stage to stick with.
Haas acknowledged that the fluctuation in stages can be disruptive.
“It’s been a yo-yo here recently, and that wasn’t the intention,” Haas said.
‘We failed them’
During a lengthy public comment period for which 35 people signed up to speak, parents, teachers and students weighed in on plans for classes this winter. As in past reopening debates, speakers used different studies to show that schools are either safe or not safe during the pandemic.
“Early caution was understood but we know enough now to reverse course,” said Matthew Winkler, a Western Albemarle High School parent. “The risk of not going back presents our youth and families irreparable consequences.”
Haas has not yet decided whether to expand in-person classes, but the division is operationally prepared to move into Stage Four, according to a presentation at Thursday’s meeting.
Stage Four would mean in-person classes for all students, though frequency varies. Preschoolers through third-graders would have four days of class while fourth-graders and older would have classes twice a week.
Instead of a decision for each quarter, Haas will now make a recommendation about expanding in-person classes when health metrics allow, though no specific metrics were mentioned. After his recommendation, the School Board will vote at a following meeting and then Stage Four would begin two weeks later.
In a survey released last month, 61.7% of elementary families picked hybrid instruction while 54.7% of middle and high school families did so.
Citing the same local statistics, parents and teachers disagreed about the risks of opening up schools. Parents argued that having in-person classes and other activities is safe with the proper mitigation strategies and that keeping students home will have negative ramifications. Teachers disagreed and urged the board to keep classes online until case numbers decline and more staff receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“While I agree with the decision to return to Stage One for the next two weeks, I’m still apprehensive about how decisions for reopening will be made in the future,” said Vernon Liechti, a government teacher at Albemarle High School.
Liechti added that he was concerned about the return of UVa students next month and how they’ll affect the COVID data, echoing a concern raised over the summer and throughout the fall. The testing at UVa did skew the area’s positivity rate.
Jessica Taylor, president of the Charlottesville Education Association, spoke in support of county teachers and encouraged division officials to listen to employee concerns in their planning process.
“Give them a seat at the table so that their perspective and their experiences at their worksites is capitalized on in building your vision for a return to in-person instruction,” she said. “I urge you to take action now to repair any confidence and trust that has been damaged so that you can maintain the high quality and committed workforce I enjoy working alongside.”
Jennifer Graham, a teacher at Walton Middle School, said she didn’t expect that some of her students would not participate in classes virtually. Some students in middle school can come into the building for help including those who haven’t been engaging with virtual classes.
“I feel like schools previously partnered to help kids raise these families,” she said. “We failed them. We haven’t been there to meet pragmatic needs.”
Graham said after visiting some of her students at the school, she realized they needed her and she taught virtually and in-person.
“They were failing and needed help,” she said. “… A lot of them have parents who are working so they’re left to their own devices during the day. A few of their parents didn’t speak English. I heard parents break down because they didn’t know how to help their kids.”
Jane Wiggins, a Western Albemarle parent who recently lost her father-in-law to the virus, said she was worried about how the effects of the isolation her children are experiencing.
“My own teenagers’ mental health is not in good state,” she said. ““My children are in their bedrooms — all day, every day — trying to receive an education over Zoom. … The real effects of the isolation may not be tangible to us right now but the long-term effects have serious implications for these students.”
Harper McQueen, a student, advocated for the division to stick with virtual classes. She said having students learning online and in-person is “incredibly disruptive.”
“As much as I love to believe that my classmates will wear masks and always remember to social distance, I know that won’t happen,” she said. “… I know many people who listen to politicians who denounce masks and even think that the precautions that were taken were blown way out of proportion. Knowing this, it isn’t crazy to think many kids will try and protest the rules put in place for other people’s safety.”