Elementary school students in Albemarle County will go to school in-person four days a week next school year under two of three reopening scenarios presented to the School Board Thursday, while secondary students would go to class one or two days a week.
Division staff presented three attendance options Thursday to the board, which will decide on a plan July 30 during a special meeting. The capacity of school buses and buildings were the primary considerations for the scenarios.
More than a dozen people spoke during public comment, most of whom were teachers calling on the division to opt for an all-virtual start to the school year because of the health risks associated with teaching in-person as the pandemic continues unabated. Teachers also were concerned about not being consulted on the return plan.
“As of right now, I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel my children are safe going into ACPS schools for face-to-face learning in the fall,” said Tim Klobuchar, an English teacher at Monticello High School.
Regardless of the final plan, masks will be required for students and staff, a request of many teachers.
Parents were previously asked to choose between a hybrid schedule or all-online option for next school year. More than 7,550 parents responded to the survey. About 1,000 said they would prefer an all-virtual option.
The school year is set to start Sept. 8.
Thursday’s presentation detailed the scheduling scenarios, a glimpse at what virtual learning would look like as well as virus mitigation strategies on buses and buildings.
“As you can imagine there are a lot of details as we’re pretty much redesigning a school system in these circumstances, fortunately we have an extremely capable and talented team of staff, who’s committed to doing this right,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, chief operating officer of the division.
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas said employees will be surveyed starting Friday.
“I am dismayed that none of the former teachers who work in this central office spoke up before this point to say that we should hear from all teachers about this plan,” said Mary McIntyre, a teacher at Jack Jouett Middle School, during public comment Thursday. “Having it kept from us until today felt very hurtful and disrespectful. We are the ones who have to execute your plan.”
If teachers don’t want to teach in-person, they could request accommodation through the division’s human resources office. However, the division doesn’t yet have a sense of how many teachers will be needed to teach face-to-face.
Board member Judy Le said she was concerned that teachers were not surveyed before the proposal was released and needed more details to feel safe about reopening.
“Because I think this is the most important decision that we will make probably in my entire tenure here,” Le said.
Parents will be asked to commit to a learning option starting July 20, according to the division’s presentation.
Haas said the division has been “painstakingly transparent” with different stakeholders about reopening. The division has created a website landing page with information about reopening.
Thursday’s presentation follows several days of national debate about reopening schools. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have said that all schools need to plan for in-person classes and that federal guidance shouldn’t be an excuse for districts.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said last week that all plans should start with the goal of having students physically present in school, citing the negative effects of the sudden closure of schools in the spring.
However, federal and state officials have left decisions about reopening to local leaders, which was made clear in a recent letter to Virginia superintendents and School Boards.
Locally, school divisions have crafted reopening plans that adhere to state guidelines, which were changed Monday to allow for less space between students and staff. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends at least six feet of distance between desks.
Schmitt said six feet is the goal.
The attendance plan builds off the division’s planning document released last month. The 28-page guide is a series of high-level commitments about how to reopen buildings, keep students and staff safe and provide a high-quality education in-person and digitally.
Teachers asked the division to allow teachers in high-risk groups and those with family members in high-risk groups to opt into distance teaching without penalty.
Transportation employees called on the division to provide personal protective equipment such as face shields and masks.
“It is our belief that these items, along with commercial grade cleaning and sanitation supplies must be provided for each driver and assistant,” the transportation employees wrote. “We cannot afford to provide these items ourselves, and will be unable to work safely without them.”
Klobuchar said during his public comment that he was concerned schools wouldn’t be able to follow state and federal guidelines about reopening without additional funding.
“Nearly all of the recommended policies that would promote the health and safety of our students and staff require money that ACPS and the state government don’t have and the federal government is unwilling to provide,” he said. “Teachers will already be working more days than last year with no step increase in pay from last year, so we know the money likely isn’t there.”
Other speakers including teacher Vicki Hobson pointed out that the School Board was meeting virtually even while discussing a possible face-to-face return.
“However, we are expecting teachers and other staff members to return face to face in two short months,” Hobson said. “I urge the board to think deeply about the very real life or death sacrifice we are asking teachers to make.”
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