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'An impossible situation:' Concerns and questions abound as Albemarle gears up for start of virtual school
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'An impossible situation:' Concerns and questions abound as Albemarle gears up for start of virtual school


Parents in Albemarle County with elementary-aged children are sorting through the virtual learning schedule to figure out what it means for their kids days before the school system is set to start online classes.

County school officials detailed their plans for elementary schoolers last week, which include grouping students into two blocks for the portion of online classes when they’ll work directly with a teacher. In the last week, parents have started to receive their children’s schedules, which has raised concern and more questions.

School officials said during last Thursday’s School Board meeting that the schedule was designed to allow for small groups and flexibility and was developed with input from principal and teachers. Albemarle is planning a common schedule for elementary, middle and high school students, all of which were part of the presentation.

The schedule for elementary schoolers breaks students into two groups: AM or PM. The AM group starts their day with online, direct instruction at 8:20 a.m., in what is being called the synchronous block. Students in the PM group begin with independent work during the asynchronous block. The PM students would switch over to the synchronous block after lunch.

“They have legitimately planned an entire day of school, which we’re not going to do, but that’s what is planned,” said Sarah Wilson, a parent of two children at Hollymead Elementary.

Wilson has a second-grader and fourth-grader at Hollymead and spoke at the meeting about her schedule concerns. Her children are in the PM block.

“It might not work for us now because they’re both going to be listening live at the same time while my husband’s upstairs on Zoom,” she said. “So I don’t know how that’s gonna work.”

Students likely will not spend the entire three hours of the synchronous block in front of their screens, Woodbrook Principal Kristen Williams said during the meeting.

“We are going to need to take baby steps and build in stamina, just like we would at the start of any school year,” she said.

All elementary work will be done through SeeSaw, a learning management system, while the middle and high schoolers will use Schoology. Teachers have been learning how to best use those platforms all summer as the school system prepares to roll-out a much more structured version of virtual learning compared to the spring.

Families were assigned a block based on their preference and data and other family information, Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said during the meeting. Some schools surveyed families.

Katrina Callsen, vice-chairwoman of the county School Board, said she received a letter telling her which block her children, who attend Agnor-Hurt Elementary, would be in.

“It is not flexible to be told,” she said. “The letter literally says ‘flexibility for families and kids is our goal, which is why we made two groups; here’s the group you’re in,’ which doesn’t provide me with any flexibility, actually with no information about what I have to attend or what I have to do.”

Wilson said she and other parents weren’t aware of the block concept for the schedule or asked for feedback. Since receiving the schedule last week, she’s asked for more specifics about expectations, requirements and how much students will be online but hasn’t gotten clear answers.

“It’s also really unnerving when you’re trying to plan and think about it,” she said.

Students will be counted as present for the school year if they attend an online class or submit an assignment. If students aren’t logging in over the course of several days, a teacher will reach out to the family and then enlist the help of the school counselor or principal if they can’t get in touch, officials said. Schools Superintendent Matt Haas added that the division has “complete flexibility” from the Virginia Department of Education in how they count attendance.

Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said Friday afternoon that the policies about attendance and expectations will be addressed in the student and employee handbooks that each principal produces and distributes to their school communities each year.

During the board meeting, Callsen asked if the principals had data on families’ preferences for the two blocks.

“That afternoon block is incredibly difficult to manage if you’re working,” she said. “It’s in the middle of the day. You’d have to go to work for two hours, come back for four hours, and then work for two hours if you had a 9 to 5 work schedule.”

Williams, at Woodbrook, said that as teachers are talking with families about the schedule and any conflicts and said, “it seems to be working itself out.”

“Our priority is to be supportive with families,” she said. “Because what we know is that if it’s not going to work for them, the kids are not going to be there, and we want the kids to be there. The teachers are working this out.”

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The synchronous block is optional for families and will be recorded. Families also can opt-out of special classes such as art, music, physical education and library, which will be taught multiple times throughout the week, by signing a form, Collins said at the meeting.

But, Wilson said she’s heard different and wants more clarity about the special classes.

“Normally I’m all about music and art and those would be the No. 1 priorities I would have,” she said. “But virtually those are not my No. 1 priorities because I’d much rather my kid be riding a bike or doing art with me. I don’t really want them to sit through virtual PE, especially when my kids are already going to be doing a three-hour Zoom call. And so my big question was, is that required and what’s the flexibility? And I still get a different answer every time I ask that.”

After listening to the School Board meeting and talking to teachers, Wilson said the schedule sounded better.

“Teachers are working really hard to make the best of the situation,” she said. “… It’s an impossible situation.”

Jon Gardner, who has a kindergartner at Stone-Robinson Elementary in the PM block, was uncertain and skeptical that the morning specials and asynchronous work will keep his kid’s attention.

“There are two adults [working from home] in this household, which helps, but I foresee being pulled away from work a lot more than I have in the past,” he said.

The division has said that elementary students could expect one to three hours a day of direct virtual instruction, depending on grade level. For example, the division’s guidelines call for one and a half to two hours of synchronous learning for kindergarten to first grade students while the fourth- and fifth-graders would have two and a half to three hours.

“For kindergarten and first grade, we would start at the lower end of scale and might not hit that as we are building community and getting ready to learn in this new space,” Williams said.

At the middle school level, the division is recommending that teachers devote about 35 minutes of the 80-minute class to direct instruction.

The Albemarle Education Association has written a few letters to Haas with questions and concerns about the elementary schedule and solutions the division has provided. According to their analysis, the elementary schedule would mean more than 13 hours of online time for kindergartners to second-graders who fully participate in addition to any activities through SeeSaw. Middle and high schoolers would have about 10 hours of time online.

Gaertner, a second grade teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary, said the schedule as presented imposes unrealistic burdens on teachers and asked if their concerns will be addressed. Per the schedule, elementary teachers would have two three-hour classes back to back, leaving little time during the day for planning.

“Teachers want to provide students with the best possible education this year,” she wrote. “They also want to assist the Administration in planning for these unprecedented circumstances. However, teachers need to know that their input matters and that they’re concerns are being heard.”

The middle and high school day will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays with breaks and time for lunch built in. High schools also will offer an early-bird class period starting at 8:30 a.m. Schools have been holding virtual open houses to help students and parents get acquainted with the online schedule and learning platforms.

Emily Solari has three children at Mountain View Elementary and received a draft schedule for her first-grader Thursday. They’re all in the same afternoon block though the specific activities within those three hours vary. She got the final schedules Friday.

For the lower grades, she said the division wants a parent next to them during the online classes, which Solari said she understands.

“But when you have three kids in elementary school and two parents at home that are also working full-time, that’s virtually impossible,” she said. “ … It’s an impossible situation for everybody, including teachers.”

Solari, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, also will be teaching this fall for UVa while the kids are working.

She’s concerned about the amount of instructional time and that it’s not enough to learn foundational skills such as reading and math as well as apparent inconsistencies in how other schools are approaching the schedule.

“Things differ in that some kids are getting much more instruction than others, it appears,” she said. “And so that for me, that’s really hard to understand why there’s not a standard across all elementary schools.”

Callsen echoed a similar sentiment during last week’s board meeting. Although she was reassured by the presentation, the information needs to be conveyed to parents in a similar way across schools, she said.

“ … Some schools you haven’t been asked at all about your preference and no guidance given about what that means,” she said. “ … At a division level, we have continuity with how our elementary schools are telling parents about this.”

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