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Albemarle County schools will move to Stage Three
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Albemarle County schools will move to Stage Three

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Albemarle County School Board meeting

Greer Elementary teacher Lori Alridge speaks during the public comment period of Thursday’s Albemarle County School Board meeting. All of the teachers who spoke opposed a move to Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan, and some wanted more information. Many of the parents who spoke wanted the division to progress to Stage Three and to open up in-person classes to more students on a quicker timeline.

Albemarle County parents of preschoolers through third-graders will have until Oct. 16 to decide whether to send their children to school twice a week after the School Board voted 4-3 late Thursday to move the division to Stage Three of its reopening plan.

In the wake of the board’s decision, teachers expressed disappointment on social media, which extended to parents who wanted more information about the specifics of Stage Three after receiving a letter from the division about the change. The Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County criticized the move and asked parents not to sign the intent form until they got more information.

“The survey that ACPS is using to support these decisions had low responses and are predominantly the ‘nice white parents’ who have no understanding of their detrimental impact on children other than their own,” the group wrote on Facebook, referencing a New York Times podcast about the influence of white parents on public schools.

About 65% of parents said in a survey that closed Tuesday that they would send their students back to school, and 43.6% reported that their students haven’t been as successful academically this year. But 60% of teachers said the division should continue with all virtual classes and 93% said they have been somewhat to highly effective with virtual learning.

Most of the division’s licensed staff, which includes teachers, responded to the survey while 6,413 parents took the survey.

After the vote, board member Katrina Callsen asked division staff about how they will inform parents about the nitty-gritty details of Stage Three before they make that decision. Earlier in the meeting, parents said they wanted more information about how the classes would work, such as the schedule and if they would keep their current teacher, which is not a guarantee.

However, that information will depend on the number of students who opt for in-person classes and which teachers request to keep teaching remotely, officials said Thursday evening.

Division officials are confident they’ll have the staff for Stage Three. In a survey, about 40% of teachers said they would request to continue teaching remotely and 11% said they would request a leave of absence if required to work in person.

Hate-Free and other critics have argued that teachers didn’t know enough about the job expectations in Stage Three to determine whether they would need to request accommodations, a leave of absence, resign or retire.

Employees could start requesting accommodations to teach remotely Friday and have until Oct. 15 to do so.

Those seeking a reasonable accommodation based on the Americans with Disabilities Act will have priority consideration. Additionally, the division said it will also hear requests for accommodations for those considered high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “as opportunities allow,” according to a division presentation.

“We need to know the number of students before we can talk about the accommodations for staff,” Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said. “But I would say, we heard you. I will talk to principals about that flexibility for parents who would prefer to keep the teacher if they go hybrid or virtual. I know that would be something principals will talk about.”

Stage Three means that as many as 2,500 students total could be in school buildings a day as the division offers face-to-face classes for the first time since schools closed in March near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other groups of students, including those who haven’t engaged with virtual learning, will be able to come to school for online classes and work with a learning coach.

When not at school, students will have online assignments to work on with support from teaching assistants and can attend virtual specials such as art and PE as part of the hybrid learning plan.

Seth Kennard, principal of Baker-Butler Elementary, said Thursday that the instruction time in Stage Three shouldn’t change from Stage Two as students move from four half-days of live instruction to two full days.

“Minute to minute, it’s about the same.” he said.

Thursday’s presentation didn’t include information on the number of students actually in the buildings for Stage Two, survey results broken down by family’s race and socioeconomic status, data about achievement gaps that the division said are growing or a division assessment of how virtual learning has gone aside from the survey results.

The school system started the year in Stage Two, which meant that fewer than 5% of students have been coming into the schools for online classes. Although numbers vary day to day, about 250 students have been taking advantage of in-person access, most of whom are English language learners, the division said Friday.

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Haas said Wednesday that they haven’t gathered quantitative data on the learning losses students have experienced since the shut down.

Although the division didn’t collect demographic information in its survey, a national survey released Thursday found that the majority of parents of color preferred that schools focus on improving remote learning, according to Chalkbeat.

Board members were worried about the students and families they weren’t hearing from in surveys and in public comment, as well as increasing the achievement gaps among different student groups. Of the 28 speakers, the only two non-white speakers were African American teachers who advocated for staying in Stage Two.

“We know that COVID-19 affects people of color at higher rates than other people,” said Lori Alridge, a teacher at Greer Elementary. “We also know that it affects elderly and low-income people. Our students belong in that population.”

Haas said the best way for the division to hear from all families is when students are in school.

“The very same students and families that in many ways we are charged to be the equalizer for their voice goes unheard in these conversations,” he said.

Thursday’s vote fell along the same lines as the July 30 decision to start the school year mostly online with Callsen, David Oberg, Kate Acuff and Jonno Alcaro voting in favor.

“My gut, my heart says why would we risk it,” Oberg said. “But my brain says, listen, we have experts who have done this in telesis, who’ve said, look, as long as these things are followed, it’s safe. And I don’t have any reason to doubt that analysis.”

Board Chairman Graham Paige and members Judy Le and Ellen Osborne voted against Stage Three.

“I can’t really with a good conscience be able to support moving to Stage Three right now,” Paige said, adding that he was worried about the uncertainty about the virus and the rate of community transmission.

Osborne wanted to open up access to more English language learners, special education students and some other students but worried about the disruption to students’ schedules and breaking their relationships with teachers.

Le said she supported bringing in those groups of students, as well as those who are not engaged with virtual learning.

“The risk is too great,” she said. “... And then we’re going to break that for the reward that is questionable of two days of in-person learning and three full days of asynchronous, and breaking these relationships.”

Acuff said that if there’s an outbreak, the division can quickly move to a lower stage.

“So I was very much heartened by the improvements in our communication with the health department, the improvements in testing ability to protocols for contact tracing, and just the turnaround in terms of the testing,” she said. “There’s not going to be one fail-safe measure, but we do have options to back off immediately if we get that data.”

No one in the meeting specified what data would trigger a move back to Stage Two.

After the vote, Callsen acknowledged what a difficult decision it was.

“I hope that any constituents who have issues — which it sounds like there might be — please reach out because I’m always happy to discuss with people and I’m pretty sure I can say that for the rest of the board, as well,” she said.

Near the end of the meeting, an unmuted participant issued a warning.

“Remember who these people are so come election time we can make sure people —” the person said before being shushed and muted.

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