Updated at 11:40 p.m. with details about the School Board's vote and discussion
Albemarle County School Board voted 4-3 late Thursday night to start in-person classes for preschoolers through third-graders starting Nov. 9.
The vote came after more than two hours of discussion about schools Superintendent Matt Haas’s recommendation to move to Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan. Parents have until Oct. 16 to decide whether to send their kids to school or stick with online classes.
The board also heard more than an hour of public comments from concerned parents and teachers.
After the vote, board vice chairwoman 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.
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Teachers have until Oct. 15 to request accommodations to continue teaching remotely.
“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 would talk about.”
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 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.
“I don't know that there is a plan that allows that right now,” she said. “That's not the one that's in front of us.”
Haas said that such a plan would lead to segregated schools.
After the vote, Callsen acknowledged what a difficult vote 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.
Haas announced Wednesday that he was recommending a move to Stage Three, pointing to survey results from parents who reported that virtual learning wasn’t effective, as well as the lack of confirmed outbreaks in other school systems across that state that have reopened.
On Thursday, Haas thanked the teachers and school staff who have made virtual learning work during his statement to start the presentation.
Haas said that division has invested $1.5 million to make sure it can successfully implement the five mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those are consistent and correct use of masks; social distancing to the largest extent possible; hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette; cleaning and disinfection; and contact tracing.
The division is working on a webpage to publicly track all confirmed COVID-19 cases in the schools, Haas said. Fewer than five employees and no students have tested positive since school started.
“If it is necessary, I will move us back to Stage Two,” he said.
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.
Under Stage Three, about 5,000 students would be eligible for in-person classes or access to the buildings. Preschoolers through third-graders would have in-person, non-virtual classes twice a week. Parents can continue with all-virtual classes, though the specifics of that plan are still in the works.
During Thursday’s meeting, division staff explained Haas’ recommendation, highlighted some survey results from parents and teachers and gave a broad overview of how Stage Three would work.
The division has outlined six factors to consider in making a recommendation, which include . Of those six factors, which include current state and federal guidance, current COVID-19 case numbers and other data points, the turnaround time for tests availability of testing.
Five of those factors were rated as green and one — feedback and input from stakeholders — was yellow, though the division hasn’t outlined any metrics that would make the factors red, yellow or green.
“We see distinct differences in the feedback we've received from our community stakeholders,” said Patrick McLaughlin, the division’s chief of strategic planning, of the yellow designation. “ We know that online learning is in a much better state today than this past spring almost exclusively due to the dedication of our teachers as good as our online experiences. We do not feel to be a permanent substitute for in person instruction.”
Before the presentation, 28 people signed up to speak during the board’s public comment period, which lasted about an hour and a half.
About a dozen of those who spoke favored a move to Stage Three or a greater expansion of in-person classes for middle and high school students, saying that virtual learning has not been effective and they were worried about the effects of continued social isolation on their children.
“Self-isolation is unhealthy,” said Robyn Mattern, adding that her kids are physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the school day. “It’s not safe. It’s not effective.”
Shawn Boyd, another parent of middle and high school students, said he was concerned that parents and students aren’t being heard and cited examples of local private schools that have reopened successfully.
Another parent called on the division to “reopen to the fullest extent possible.”
All of the more than a dozen teachers who spoke said the division should stay in the current stage because of safety risks with the virus and the disruption it would cause to students.
They remained concerned about their own health but also asked a range of questions about the logistics of the plan. They wanted more information about planning time for Stage Three, breaks during the day and job expectations for when students are at-home, among other questions.
Jeannie Ballard, a teacher at Mountain View Elementary, said Stage Three would mean that the school could go from having 25 students in the building to 400.
“It’s too much too soon,” she said. “We’re going to disrupt the progress we’ve made by starting over in teams of the classmates and teachers, possible or probable quarantines, and then flu season is right around the corner. It’s too much too fast.”
Parents who spoke also wanted answers about the plan for the all-virtual learning, whether their children would have the same teacher and about how the at-home learning days would work. On Wednesday, Haas said it was not a guarantee that students would have the same teacher or that the schedule would stay the same for those who stick with virtual classes.
“I don’t feel that parents were given clarification about specifics of what virtual or hybrid will look like,” said Jennifer Warren, a teacher. “There’s so many questions that I feel were not answered or the information wasn’t given to us.”
Haas said at the start of his presentation that he wanted to make sure that all the questions get answered.
“We built our timeline so that we have a full month to continue to iron out details for each employee and students,” Haas said. “But I want to be sure we can address all the questions. If you have a question after tonight, I encourage you to start with your school’s principal. If the principal doesn’t have an answer, please contact me, and I will get you to the person who can answer your question and make sure the principal has the correct information moving forward.”
Most of the teachers and some parents worried about the disruption to students’ schedules and routines that a move to Stage Three will cause.
“Teachers will change, routines will drastically change, classroom communities will change, risk of exposures will change and mental health is going to suffer,” said Sue Zeanah, a PE teacher at Mountain View Elementary.
Xianaide, a student at Henley Middle School, was the only student to speak.
“I feel like we should be going back to school in person,” she said. “I know a lot of people disagree with me. … I can’t pay attention as well as I could in person.”
About 95% of teachers said in a recent survey that they felt their effectiveness with virtual learning was progressing.
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.
“I do not believe that forcing people into buildings where they don’t feel safe will improve the quality of learning for our students,” said Jennifer MacDonald, a teacher at Albemarle High School. “… Nothing is better than in person the way we are accustomed. This will not be that.”
Debbie Stollings, a teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, said that while virtual learning is going well for her, she knows there are students who are struggling, and that virtual learning doesn’t work for everybody.
"Here we are thinking about taking the time to make a change, especially for our preK-3 kids who are most vulnerable learners," she said. "It's true. They need rich learning experiences. I’m not sure you are going to find a rich learning experience in our classrooms [in Stage Three]. ... Help us help the ones that this isn’t working for.”