About one-fifth of Black families in the Albemarle County school division who weighed in on a recent survey want to stay virtual for the coming school year, compared with 6% of white families, according to results released this week.For the coming academic year, the division is planning to offer a full-time in-person option along with an all-virtual school, schools Superintendent Matt Haas announced last month. On average, about 7% of families picked the virtual option. About 7,000 people responded, 73.5% of whom were white and 6.9% were Black. Division-wide, about 61% of students are white, so several other demographic groups were underrepresented in the survey results.
Patrick McLaughlin, the division’s chief of strategic planning, detailed the division’s planning efforts to offer full-time in-person classes along with the virtual school during Thursday’s county School Board meeting.
A state law that will go into effect July 1 requires school divisions to provide the five-day in-person option. The School Board will vote on the plan at its May 13 meeting.
Families from minority demographic groups who are currently doing all-virtual classes said they felt it was the safest option for them.
Since the survey, Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, reached out to some families to discuss their concerns for next school year, McLaughlin said.
“He was able to discern that while the reasons were really nuanced for each family, the common thread of his conversations was fear of children or other family members becoming sick by returning to school,” McLaughlin said. “So with this in mind, schools are already connecting with families to see how we might support them to feel more safe coming back to the school, and we’ll continue this work including starting our next school year.”
To offer five days of in-person instruction, additional staff will most likely need to be hired as class sizes will be reduced to accommodate three feet of social distancing, down from the six-foot distance in place for this school year, according to the presentation. Mask-wearing and other mitigation measures, such as ventilation and air filters, will continue to be in place.
McLaughlin said next school year will be “not quite back to normal … but a whole lot closer than we’ve been for a long time.”
McLaughlin said federal stimulus funds will cover the increased costs for next school year.
The division is planning to purchase and install an eight-classroom trailer at Albemarle, Monticello and Western Albemarle High schools and Henley Middle School. Additionally, to increase capacity on school buses to pre-pandemic levels, the division will buy individual HEPA air purifiers for the vehicles.
“Transportation should not be a barrier to us opening our schools five days a week next year,” McLaughlin said.
For families who aren’t comfortable returning in person, the division is creating an all-virtual school. Hiring for a principal and teachers is under way. The division is expecting to need about 40 teachers for the school. So far, about 250 current teachers have expressed interest in the virtual school.
Haas said the virtual school will be a one-year pilot using the one-time federal funds. Division leadership has discussed providing a virtual option for several years, pre-dating the pandemic. Haas has said that 5% to 10% of students could utilize the virtual option in a typical school year for a variety of reasons.
“It’s low risk for us to do that,” Haas said of the pilot program. “… It’s a one in a decade or quarter century opportunity to get something started using federal dollars that if it doesn’t work out, we could back out of it. Having said that, we wanted to try and do something innovative and really special for our community that would be in demand, perhaps, in the long term.”
Board members asked about how students who pick the virtual school option will be supported and how success will be measured, as well as other additional supports for students, such as counselors.
The division isn’t planning to hire more counselors but has brought on a mental health coordinator to assist them.
“We have enough counselors,” Haas said. “We used grant funding that we had from a private donor to hire the counseling director. We will be expanding services by increasing efficiency, coordination — all the things that have been lacking in the last 12 years since the first recession when we lost our counseling director.”
Before Thursday’s meeting, board members had the chance to review the presentation and ask questions.
For in-person classes, instruction and schedules will look more like a typical school year. The high schools will abandon the four-class schedule for semesters, returning to the A/B year-long model. Special classes and extracurriculars will return for elementary and secondary students.
Starting June 1, families will be asked to pick a learning option for the 2021-22 school year with a response deadline of June 11. McLaughlin said they are aiming for a 100% response rate from the schools.
For the virtual school, the division is seeking a semester-long commitment, though it has not set a deadline for when families won’t be able to switch.
To assist families with the decision, principals will host town halls this month. The division also is building a website for the virtual school and holding information sessions. For more information, go to k12albemarle.org/our-division/virtual-campus.