County Return-to-School Playbook Still Under Review

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Zoom meeting of the Albemarle County School Board June 18, 2020.

At their June 26 meeting, the Albemarle County School Board set the starting date for the 2020-21 school year as Tuesday, September 8, three weeks later than the original August 19 date posted on the division’s website. The school year may be extended by two weeks in June of 2021 to compensate for lost instructional time if necessary. “September 8 allows teachers more time to prepare, and we believe that by moving to September 8 we’ll be more in alignment with Phase 3 of the reopening and thus will be able to have more students at school,” said Superintendent Matt Haas.

Chief of Strategic Planning Pat McLaughlin described the results of a survey sent to all school constituents asking for opinions about delaying the start of the school year, in which 52% said a later start would be more beneficial, while 30% it would not be beneficial. “We had close to 5,000 respondents to the survey, and every segment of the [respondent set] was positive,” said McLaughlin. “The teachers had the highest positive responses for opening September 8.” 

McLaughlin noted that county school officials met with their Charlottesville counterparts to discuss the calendar changes, and said that the city may adjust their planned schedule to line up with the county’s. Only board member Katrina Callsen said she preferred a September 2 opening date as a compromise to get school underway a little earlier, and voted for the earlier date.

Back to school

The school division’s Return-to-School Task Force presented its much-anticipated report to the School Board on June 18, though parents and students who hoped for specifics on exactly how schools plan to reopen this fall will have to wait a little longer—until July 9—for those. “While this document is what we might call the ‘rules of the game,’ it is not yet the ‘playbook,’” said Deputy Superintendent Collins, who outlined the task force’s findings.

The culmination of a large-scale effort that began in early May, the division’s “planning guide” incorporates the expertise of 81 school staff members across four aspects of the proposed reopening: healthy environments, healthy staff, healthy students, and healthy learning. Groups comprised of teachers and administrators for each focus area designed guiding questions and key strategies to chart a path forward with public health considerations at the forefront. 

Beyond the broad guidance contained in the report, Collins acknowledged that parents, students, and teachers have “burning questions” about how school will realistically begin again, and those she answered elliptically. “It will be a hybrid learning model,” she said, “where one portion of student body will attend classes on school grounds while another group will learn remotely. The two groups may alternate days or weeks on campus to blend the environments, and elementary student schedules may be different than middle and high school.”

Unlike Charlottesville city school officials, who have proposed a “two days at school / three days at home” weekly learning schedule, Collins resisted getting into particulars. “We still need a lot of input to determine how often and how many children we can have in the buildings,” she said. A survey set to go out early next week will ask parents about their preferences for parent-provided versus school bus transportation to and from school, as well as whether they plan to send their children at all or have them learn virtually.

“We know it’s critical to have students in the buildings as often as we can, but there are challenging logistics to be able to do that in a safe way,” said Collins. “For instance, we are working with the health department to determine safe bus capacity and are looking at [having students use] every other seat, so for our biggest buses that means [a maximum of] 12 students. That changes the number of students we can get into the building every day.” Collins did not address how the division might increase available buses and bus drivers to be able to transport more students.

Collins said that instead of hybrid learning, parents will be able to choose virtual learning, whereby children may continue to stay home but learn “in a parallel way” by listening to lectures and doing the same work that is being done in the live classroom. She also floated the possibility that parents could request a home-schooling option where they would be able to choose their own sources of curriculum. No details were provided on the capability of schools to install and employ virtual streaming technology in every classroom by the fall, nor how teachers would manage both in-person and virtual students at the same time each day.

“Nothing is settled yet,” Collins stressed, “we are just beginning to explore these options.”

The parent survey on transportation and in-person/virtual preferences will run from June 26 to July 5, and the division hopes to release a weekly schedule for students by July 9. 

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