Administrators and teachers at Charlottesville High and Buford Middle schools have a month to change schedules and implement the other changes needed to start in-person classes.
Following a lengthy discussion Thursday night, the city School Board voted 4-3 to start hybrid learning at the two schools April 12, after the division’s spring break. The vote did not resolve concerns with the hybrid model, including that it means less direct instruction for students. The vote also potentially ended the board’s long and winding journey as members have wrestled with if and how to offer in-person classes.
Students in preschool to sixth grade will start in-person classes Monday and go to school four days a week. Those in seventh grade and up will most likely have classes twice a week, under a previous model for hybrid learning that was shelved in December.
About a third of Buford and CHS students will have the opportunity to come in to school buildings for in-person assistance starting Monday and a range of social activities are in the works at both schools as part of Option A, which is the reopening plan the board unanimously approved in December.
“We know the urgency and the need to get our students back in school, and that’s what we’d like to do,” schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said, adding it was the division’s desire to move forward and get students back in school. “So, I would ask the board to give us direction of what the board would like us to do, and we create a pathway and we stay on that pathway until the end of the school year.”
Atkins said repeatedly during Thursday’s meeting that the schools have the capacity to bring in more students but said such a move would change the virtual learning schedule, something the board and community members previously opposed.
The board’s change of heart came as more employees have received the COVID-19 vaccine, staff have pushed for schools to reopen and the weather warms up. Previously, board members were hesitant to make a final decision and worried about opening up schools too quickly, a position that started to shift with the arrival of the vaccine.
“It’s spring,” said board member Jennifer McKeever, who had been a leading voice against reopening in the fall. “We should use all the space that we have. A month is a good amount of time to plan. There’s still a quarter left of school. I just don’t want to waste the rest of the school year.”
McKeever’s motion came near the end of the six-hour meeting during a portion reserved for board member comments, which is not typically when votes are held. The in-person learning plan for the two schools was not listed as an action item on the agenda.
The motion was amended to give administrators the flexibility to tweak the model as they see fit.
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. 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 is best. Concerns about transportation and staffing were also raised.
"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.
Kraft, Wade, McKeever and board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres voted in favor, while board members Leah Puryear, James Bryant and LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger voted no.
“I think we are at capacity trying to get the elementary kids [in],” Bryson-Morsberger said. “I think we just need to find a way to catch people in the seventh through 12th grade model that virtual isn’t working for. … It’s a shake up that doesn’t really get us to where we want it to be.”
‘Missed the boat’
With 65 days left in the school year, some board members wondered if there was enough time to reopen Buford and CHS.
Having virtual and in-person students presents a more complicated challenge for those two schools because of the class schedule and as the need to have teachers with certain endorsements teach specific classes — challenges that have been discussed at previous board meetings.
During Thursday’s meeting, board members looked at a Nov. 19 presentation about the hybrid learning schedule and peppered administrators with questions about what the day would look like and the limitations to offering in-person classes.
The previously proposed schedules would involve teaching in-person and virtual students at the same time. That means classrooms need better cameras and audio equipment for those learning at home. The division had looked into the equipment, which could cost about $400 to $500 for classrooms, but didn’t move forward with those purchases after changing reopening models in December.
“I think we might have missed the boat on going hybrid,” Wade said. “I can be convinced otherwise. If we can do it, let’s go. My goal is as soon as possible.”
The second semester is already underway, and students are starting to get used to their current class schedule, the board’s student representation, Je’Saun Johnson, said.
Johnson said a switch to hybrid now would do more harm than good for students.
“Entering the third quarter and having something come and switch that up would be very problematic for me,” said Johnson, who is planning to stay virtual.
He added that the plan under Option A looked like it would work and that he wanted to make sure the students who need help get it.
“Let’s help the students who aren’t motivated, who haven’t signed into school, which I know a few people who haven’t and just stopped, who have just completely just gone off grid,” he said.
In fact, he urged the board and division leaders to work together rather than argue about what plan is better.
“Let’s come together and make a compromise on what needs to be done for the rest of the years, and what we can do now to make sure that this year goes well and we can move on to next year,” he said.
In a survey conducted in November, 66% of CHS and 65% of Buford students said they wanted to go in-person.
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 to socialize. Principals at CHS and Buford were also looking at ways to bring in more students as part of Option A.
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.
Atkins said she thought that the activities in the works at CHS and Buford would be beneficial to students and open the door for more to come onto school property.
“We will certainly make best use of outside to get more students in as students do need to be back with us,” she said. “We certainly want that to happen, and we want to be as creative as possible to pull in our students.
The board also heard from several students and parents during public comment about how virtual learning has affected them and why the schools needed to reopen.
But not all parents are in favor of the move. Bekah Saxon, who has a student at CHS, encouraged the board to stay the course with Option A.
“My family’s not choosing virtual because it’s working for us,” she said. “We’re choosing virtual because we need to make sure our child comes out of this alive and without permanent health issues. … There’s nothing that my child wants more than to be back in school next fall in a normal setting. And right now I’m afraid we’re at a tipping point where if we do too much right now, we’re not going to be back normal in the fall.”
Saxon pointed out that Charlottesville’s COVID-19 cases numbers and level of community transmission are in the red or the high risk category as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The CDC actually has put Charlottesville firmly in the red zone, and in that red zone, they are saying that we should have elementary students in hybrid and secondary students should remain in virtual, and that the only way secondary students can come back in to a hybrid setting is that if we have regular screening tests for COVID,” Saxon said.
During Thursday’s meeting, Bryson-Morsberger and others sought more clarity about the timeline of reopening decisions and who was in charge of making a decision about return to in-person learning at Buford and CHS.
“If we go back and listen to the transcript of that [Feb. 4] board meeting, there was a lot of discussion around which model to use,” Atkins said. “I’ve tried to go back and pull from November, December, January and February board meetings to get a sequence of events that occurred, starting in November. We probably need to go back a little bit further to take a look at some of the actions that the board took, the information that the board had, and the direction that we were headed in.”
The board has taken at least six votes on reopening plans for this school year, starting with the July 30 decision to start the year all-online. In that time, division staff have presented several different plans and models to get students back in school buildings.
Atkins recommended a return to learning plan in early November, which was largely similar to what the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee had proposed the previous month and includes four days of in-person classes for preschool through sixth-grade students and twice a week classes for middle and high school students.
Board members had been largely supportive of that plan, though not necessarily the timeline, until they saw details of the hybrid model for Buford and CHS. Under the weekly schedule presented Nov. 19, the number of asynchronous or independent virtual learning days would’ve increased from one to three, and students would’ve had one 90-minute class with each teacher once a week.
CHS’s seven-class schedule is a complicating factor whereas Albemarle County high schools switched to a four-class schedule this year.
“We are small enough to be able to solve the problem and not have three days of asynchronous learning,” McKeever said at that meeting. “I mean if you come back and tell me that Loudoun County, and another school like every division is doing this. Fine. I’m only one person on one board.”
McKeever was chairwoman at the time. Atkins had said during that meeting she would bring back more information about those asynchronous days.
In response to those concerns and rising COVID-19 case numbers, Atkins presented what is now known as Option A to board members at their Dec. 17 meeting. Her previous recommendation became Option B. That model didn’t include a plan for in-person classes at CHS and Buford, but that was not made clear during the presentation.
However, the board never formally voted down the hybrid option, according to a review of meeting records, despite what some members said Thursday.
For most of the reopening decisions, the School Board had been on the same page. That consensus started to break down in January when the timeline for Option A was pushed back. The board has voted twice to start in-person classes March 8 but at either meeting in January or February, members did not discuss what would happen at CHS and Buford beyond bringing in some students for in-person help.
With Thursday’s vote to start the hybrid model at CHS and Buford, the board’s role in key reopening decisions should be done for this school year as there are no plans to reaffirm or re-evaluate the model.