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‘Impossible questions’: School divisions face range of concerns as they plan for reopening
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‘Impossible questions’: School divisions face range of concerns as they plan for reopening

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Area school divisions face a “balancing act” as they figure out how to hold in-person classes this fall following a months-long closure.

School divisions are navigating state and federal guidelines that call for physical distancing and cleaning measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. They also are grappling with concerns about how anything less than a normal weekly schedule will affect the development of children and their social-emotional well-being.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Ryan McKay, senior policy analyst for the Thomas Jefferson Health District who is working with schools on reopening plans. “It’s impossible questions followed by more impossible questions.”

Detailed plans about how local school systems will tackle those issues will be discussed this week.

Meanwhile, teachers are waiting on details about how they’ll be kept safe when returning to work, what exactly they’ll be expected to do and what will happen if a student or staff member tests positive — details that may be very dependent on levels of state and federal funding. The National Education Association has estimated it will take billions in additional aid to help schools safely reopen.

Amy Gaertner, a second grade teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary School, said every routine and practice will have to be adjusted, from the classroom layout to the daily work and activities.

“That physical closeness is going to be gone, so all the things that we’ve practiced and been taught to build community have to be reworked and rethought,” said Gaertner, who is president of Albemarle Education Association, the local teacher’s union.

Whether schools can actually reopen in the fall depends on the state of the epidemic locally and throughout the state. Positive cases have been rising locally, according to the Thomas Jefferson Health District, and surging nationally.

“We’re only as safe as the safest family in our classroom,” Gaertner said. “If their family is seeing other people and doing unsafe practices, then we’re all at risk, even if the rest of us are being very careful.”

To reverse the trend, individuals are encouraged to wear a mask, keep their distance from people, avoid large groups and wash their hands.

“So if you want your kid to go to school wear a mask; it’s pretty simple,” said Dr. Steven Zeichner, head of University of Virginia Health’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

Charlottesville City Schools announced late Thursday that kindergarten to sixth-grade students could attend in-person classes four days a week with at-home learning on Fridays. Seventh-12th graders can go to class two days a week with online learning the other three days. The division had initially proposed two days of face-to-face classes for all students.

Last week, a group of Charlottesville parents called on the city School Board to provide a five-day-week of in-person classes, especially for elementary students. As of Friday, 79 parents signed on to the letter, which cited studies showing the negative affect that school closures have had on children.

“We do recognize the significant stress and potential risk school staff and higher health risk families would be taking,” the parents wrote. “All school staff should receive any PPE necessary in order to keep themselves safe and families given the choice to attend or use online learning. At-risk teachers and families should be matched for online learning.”

Class sizes won’t be larger than 15 students, under the school division’s new plan. The division also is planning to push back the first day of school to Sept. 8, a move that Albemarle County School Board decided last week. The city School Board will hear about the new plan Monday, but will not vote on it.

The Albemarle County school division will unveil a student schedule this week at the July 9 School Board meeting.

The division gave parents two options in a survey that closed Sunday: a hybrid model or all-virtual. The exact scope of the hybrid model has not been detailed, but division officials have said they are prioritizing in-person class time for young students, those with disabilities and English Language Learners.

The survey also asked parents whether their children would need transportation to school.

Last month, Albemarle County released a draft 28-page planning document that outlined how the division planned to keep students and staff safe while holding in-person and virtual classes. Charlottesville released a similar document Thursday.

County school officials describe the document as the rules of the game and not a playbook.

“They’re incomplete at best,” said Cheryl Knight, a special education teacher at Murray Elementary School of the plans. “They’re generalized dream wish lists of things that were put together very quickly. … They’re so broad. They don’t give you any more information.”

More than 80 division employees worked on the planning document.

The state’s official guidance for reopening schools was released in early June, though officials later clarified that the recommendations were not mandates. If school systems didn’t want to follow the guidance, they just had to tell the Virginia Department of Education.

Josh Mound, a history teacher at Monticello High School, said he was frustrated that there hasn’t been an acknowledgement that the virus is impeding quality education.

“There seems to be the belief that we can arrange things in some way either through technology or through a staggered schedule and get the type of quality education that we all want, and had prior to COVID,” he said.

But he says he won’t be able to use many of the same teaching tactics.

He likes to have students work in small groups and have one-on-one conferences with students. And beyond instruction, Mound also worried about what would happen if there’s an outbreak in a school or if someone becomes seriously ill, which could be a traumatic experience for students and staff.

“How do we balance that possibility against the serious downsides psychologically and emotionally of distance learning and wearing masks and other safety procedures?” he said. “I think we really have to understand that there’s that trade off there and that every precaution that we don’t take increases the odds of that much more traumatic event for everyone taking place.”

Child health concerns

Public health officials and doctors recognize the risk of reopening schools, but say they want to see students in school as much as possible.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its recommendations for reopening, including that all plans should start with the goal of having students physically present in school.

Zeichner agreed with that association’s guidance and said that COVID-19 risks have to be weighed against other concerns for children’s health.

“Children need to go to school; they need to get educated,” he said. “Some of the kids have really fallen behind just with the school closings this spring.”

The most recent research into how the virus affects children is that, overall, they are not as affected as adults. In fact, children tend to make less of the virus in their system, which makes them less likely to spread it, Zeichner said.

He said the burden of school closings fell disproportionately on at-risk students and there’s risk of cascading effects for children. If more in-person school isn’t provided, parents might have to choose between a job and watching their child, which could further lead to food, housing and family instability.

“If those people can’t go to work and they don’t make an income, and they can’t pay their rent and become homeless then those are all huge risk factors for social and medical outcomes for children,” he said. “To concentrate only on disease transmission and ignore other significant adverse effects on children long-term is doing children a disservice.”

Right now, the health department is encouraging schools to follow all state and federal guidance and is working with schools to help them safely reopen. Officials are looking at cleaning processes, how to minimize the movement of students around a school building and how to space children out on a school bus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended face masks for students and staff and placing desks 6 feet apart and spacing students out on buses. Use of the cafeterias and playgrounds should be staggered and the areas disinfected between groups or they should be closed, according to the interim guidance.

Although students and staff members need to keep their distance from one another, McKay said he’s encouraged schools to look at outdoor learning opportunities since the risk of spreading the virus is lower outside.

“We want kids to be doing what kids do at school,” he said.

‘Doing the best we can’

Mahdi Amani and his wife were planning to send their daughter to school five days a week next school year. She’s going into her second year of preschool at Jackson-Via Elementary School in Charlottesville and the oldest of two kids.

The division’s initial plan to have students in school twice a week was a surprise.

“That doesn’t work for a lot of parents,” said Amani, who signed the parent letter.

He’s hoping the School Board will add more in-person days. Not doing so would mean that he or his wife would have to cut back on work hours. They run a small business in Waynesboro.

The division’s new plan does not currently include preschool students. Plans for those students will be published later, according to its website.

Distance learning during the spring for his daughter meant worksheets and virtual sessions with a preschool teacher.

“It’s hard for them to be behind a computer and not get distracted,” Amani said. “... They learn a lot of social stuff from other kids. Online classes don’t have that. It makes a big difference for kids.”

Amani’s mother lives with the family, which helps with child care. But remote learning would still be a challenge in the fall, he said.

“Maybe less learning and personal instruction,” he said. “We’ll try our best to accommodate and push them to learn. That’s all we can do.”

For Desi Allevato, distancing learning and homeschooling this spring didn’t work for her rising second-grader at Greenbrier Elementary School in Charlottesville. She acknowledged that they didn’t learn much after schools closed March 13.

In-person instruction and class time is needed next year, she said, and she’d rather have two days than none.

“It’s still a pandemic and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Allevato, who is not working right now. “Two days in-person seems better than nothing.”

As she looks ahead to the fall, she’s worried about the health and safety of teachers and students as well as the development of her son. She hopes class time will focus on the fundamentals such as reading and math — subjects she said she’s not equipped to teach herself. Then, on the off days, she could supplement their instruction.

“It’s stressful,” she said. “Everybody needs to lower academic expectations ... It’s hard and everybody is figuring it out as they go along. We’re all doing the best we can.”

‘Between rock and hard place’

As teachers prepare to return to the building, they are worried about their safety, students’ health and the quality of education they can provide.

“I think we need to make sure that we’re talking about helping teachers feel safe and supported and more able to be our best selves in a weird situation,” said Tess Krovetz, a second grade teacher at Jackson-Via. “I think a big part of our job is not just academic instruction but also social emotional growth and helping kids become good citizens. It’s going to be really hard to do that if adult anxiety is high. I think we’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Krovetz and other teachers interviewed said they would feel much more comfortable about teaching in-person if all students and staff were required to wear a mask. Current federal guidance recommends that teachers wear a mask if they are less than 6 feet apart from students and other staff members.

Neither Charlottesville nor Albemarle have announced plans to require masks for the upcoming school year.

Krovetz said she’s planning to wear a mask during the school day.

“I can’t imagine teaching without walking around the room to check in on them and to have those connections with my kids,” she said, adding she hopes the city school division could provide masks for students.

She usually likes to spend the summer months planning for the next school year. With many details up in the air, Krovetz said she’s focusing on how to maintain a connection with families and how she can make her students feel safe in the classroom so they can take risks with their learning.

“That’s just going to look a little bit different than it used to and that won’t be easy, but we’ll make it work because we want our kids to do well and succeed,” she said.

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