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Watch Now: Upper grades in Albemarle return to school after a year's absence

Laura Chatterson has been teaching ceramics virtually from her classroom at Western Albemarle High School for months, but on Monday, students filled the socially distanced desks and tables before her.

“I was so happy to have them because it’s the weirdest thing to be a teacher and to be alone in your room for however many days that was because I taught from here,” she said. “ Even when we were in Stage Three, I taught from here because I love my room, and I have everything I need to show kids. But having kids in here, it’s so much better. They have such good energy.”

Monday marked the official beginning of Stage Four in the Albemarle County school division, in which all students have the option for in-person classes. Preschoolers through third-graders have in-person classes four days a week while students in fourth grade and older go to school twice a week. Some students started class last week as part of a soft start to Stage Four.

Students in third grade and younger have been in class since early November.

During Stage Four, about 60% of the division’s students are learning in-person, according to division data. About 65% of elementary students, 57% of middle-schoolers and 55% of high-schoolers are attending in-person.

Students could stay all-online with the move to Stage Four, and Chatterson has several who have done so.

This school year, Chatterson has sent clay, tools and other art supplies home to students so they could make their own creations as they followed along with her over Zoom. Once they were done, they could drop off items at the school so Chatterson could fire them in the kiln.

On Monday, she showed off some of their creations, including an intricate coffee mug that one student built. Some checked out pottery wheels to throw their works at home.

The class went better than she expected.

“They were into it partially because everyone was so Zoomed out and tired of computer work, so this was a totally different kind of thing that they can do,” she said. “… So I think that’s one reason they got into it but then also I think clay is just a fun material to work with.”

Chatterson’s ceramics classroom looked different from a more traditional school year. Normally, there would be big tables and four or five kids would sit at each table, she said. But now, there’s a mix of desks and tables, as well as pottery wheels, spaced six feet apart.

“But I think it just feels good to start making steps forward,” she said of the start of Stage Four. “I don’t think anybody expected it to be normal. They knew it was going to be in the building, but they’re still going to have to be careful, wearing masks and hand sanitizing everything. I think they accepted it and responded really well. They’re more flexible than grownups.”

Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas said the move to Stage Four is just the start.

“Right now, it seems like this is the end for some people,” he said at Greer Elementary last week. “… But it’s really just the beginning of the process. We’ll have about 65% of our students attending school. We’re still going to provide a very robust learning platform around teleconference and virtual learning, making sure that students that are home that their needs are being met.”

On Monday at Western Albemarle, Haas said Stage Four will be a pivotal experience as the division looks to make plans for opening schools next school year.

“We’ve had really good fortune in our schools because we’ve had staff and students that have been following all the protocols to mitigate spread,” he said. “And so now we’re scaling up from just under 2,000 students that were coming and going from the schools to now 8,000 students, so we’re going to see what kind of experience we have with the six-foot social distancing, with masks, with all the hygiene, with those methods. And then, if we have good experience with it, that’s going to be encouraging in thinking about our plans for reopening school in the fall.”

Most of the teachers and school staff working in-person have had the chance to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has made employees more comfortable with coming into the buildings.

Jessa Lucia, an English as a Second Language teacher at Greer Elementary, had wanted to keep teaching virtually because of childcare concerns for her child. But her husband was able to stay home and teach virtually.

“So I was then gung ho about coming back in, and then of course being fully vaccinated makes me feel so much more safe and excited to be here,” she said.

March 10, the first day of the soft start to Stage Four, was the two-week mark since Lucia got her second shot. She had been working virtually before last week and lost her voice on the first day back directing traffic and students.

“But it was just so great to see kids and how much they’ve grown in a calendar year because you can’t always see how tall they are when you’ve got them on Zoom,” she said. “… It was great to see them and get a couple elbow bumps and the joy of being able to get right back into learning.”

Lucia used mask breaks during the day to check in with her students who were learning virtually.

Lucia said having more students in the building felt much better. Teachers had two days to prepare their classrooms for Stage Four, and those days were awkward and uncomfortable, she said.

“It was a really, really short pre-service week and we weren’t entirely sure what we were preparing and planning for,” she said. “We thought we did, but we also knew that we weren’t going to be 100%, like we were going to have to figure some things out as we go.”

At Western on Monday, Molly Miracle, a government and civics teacher, worked with students in-person and over Zoom. About 18 students were online while seven were in her classroom for AP Government.

She was happy to have students back in the building.

“You talk to any teacher and they teach because they love working with students, and so as much as I’ve tried to develop relationships online, and had some good relationships, it’s not quite the same as having someone in front of you, so it’s been great to have some students around,” she said.

Balancing the in-person and virtual students will be key during Stage Four, as teachers try to make sure both sets can participate and get the attention they need. As part of the hybrid schedule, half of the students learning in-person are in the building while the other half are learning online along with those who have stayed all-virtual.

Miracle said she’s talked to the students about giving teachers grace.

“We will give them grace too as they try to figure this out, and the biggest thing is communication,” she said. “If something isn’t working, we really need students to let the teachers know. We know this is a trying time for everybody and every teacher wants to make it work the best they possibly can, so communication is going to be huge.”

So far, she’s stuck to the basic technology for the online component.

“Some teachers are doing some fantastic things,” she said. “I think that’s the other kind of key piece of this: we’ll build as we go along. … We’re trying the best we can.”


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