Virtual Reality: School Board Opts for Online Instruction

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The School Board’s five stages of returning for county students. The September 8 start of school will begin in Stage 2. (Photo: ACPS Zoom)

The Albemarle County School Board voted 4-3 to offer solely online learning for the vast majority of public school students for the first nine weeks of school beginning September 8. In-person instruction inside school buildings will be limited to students who are English language learners (in grades 4-12), those with special education needs, and those who lack adequate internet access at home. All other students will receive virtual instruction in various forms both synchronously (“live” with an online teacher) and asynchronously (via recorded videos and online assignments).

The focus of the board’s July 30 presentation stood in stark contrast to its July 9 emphasis on “hybrid” (a mix of in-person and online) learning options, in which students would attend in-person classes from one to four times per week depending on three different transportation and capacity scenarios. Those plans were shelved for the foreseeable future as the school division pivoted to five “stages of returning,” with Stage 1 being virtual learning for all and Stage 5 in-person learning for all. The board ultimately selected Stage 2 for reopening. (See nearby table of stages.)

The hybrid learning scenarios are now subsumed under the new Stage 4 in the progression that will be adopted gradually as COVID-19 conditions improve. The division expects between 1,000 and 1,500 students to be in school buildings during Stage 2. Those students would be coached through their assigned virtual learning lessons by volunteer teachers from throughout the school system, while maintaining social distance and masking requirements. 

The board’s vote on the reopening stage was split as members struggled with the decision. Three board members (Judy Le, Ellen Osborne, and Graham Paige) voted “no” on the motion for a Stage 2 reopening because they preferred Stage 1, with no in-person instruction of any kind. White Hall representative David Oberg paused for more than a minute before also voting “no,” causing the initial motion to fail. After a recess, Oberg recalled the motion and changed his vote to “yes” so that it passed along with the votes of Katrina Callsen, Kate Acuff, and Jonno Alcaro.

The Albemarle County School Board voted on a school reopening plan at their July 30 meeting. (Photo: ACPS Zoom)

“This is one of the hardest things I’ve done on the School Board,” said Oberg. “There’s no good answer to any of this. We’ve received literally thousands of emails and all have had a good basis for their positions.” 

Before the vote, division staff presented the results of recent school staff and parent surveys, in which 65% of teachers and staff said they were uncomfortable returning to work for face-to-face instruction. While 51% of parents said they were “moderately” or “extremely” concerned about in-person learning, 67% said they preferred a hybrid learning option over a virtual option for their children. 

Board member Katrina Callsen, the mother of a rising kindergartener and first grader, expressed sympathy for parents who now have to become teachers in their homes. “What I wonder about is the accountability piece,” she said. “Do parents have to help their young kids synchronously, or will there be other options? How do we do assessments to know if a kid is on target, and what structures will be in place for parents trying to do this?” Staff responded that they are working on common division assessments and common timing for content across the division.

The Stage 2 reopening plan allows Superintendent Matt Haas to move the school system back to Stage 1 without board input “if things move quickly in the wrong direction,” even before the September 8 start date. “We need stability, but also flexibility,” said Haas. “We will watch the new Virginia Department of Health dashboard, which is school division-specific, to give us greater detail about our locality.” Haas and his staff will evaluate COVID-19 conditions during each nine-week segment at the half-way point to decide if the schools can move to the next stage. (See the nearby list of factors the division will consider.)

The School Board’s list of factors to be considered in its reopening stages; colors indicate whether each factor currently supports in-person reopening. (Photo: ACPS Zoom)

The division said it would look for conditions such as a less than 10-per-100,000 case incidence rate (the county’s rate is currently 10.1) with a decreasing trend on new cases (currently increasing), and a below-10% positivity rate in testing (currently 5.7%), with a decreasing trend in positivity (currently decreasing). Specific protocols for what would happen if a student or staff member becomes sick during Stage 2 include contact tracing and a 14-day quarantine to monitor symptoms.

As for next steps, the division plans to release virtual learning details and a response plan for illness or suspected/confirmed COVID-19 cases by early August, and the School Board meeting on August 13 will include final decisions about the 2020-21 school calendar and a mask policy.

Deliberation timeline

Several events in July provided context for the School Board’s July 30 decision.

Three hybrid scenarios were presented to the board during its July 9 meeting. The scenarios were based on the limiting factor of school bus capacity, as buses can carry only 12 to 24 students under proper distancing rules. Across the three options, elementary students would generally attend in-person school four days a week, while secondary (middle and high school) students would attend in-person from as little as four days every five weeks to as many as two days each week.

At the July 9 meeting, board member Katrina Callsen said she appreciated the scenarios that involved in-person instruction, especially for younger students. “Our role is to educate all students, and [virtual learning] hasn’t been shown to be as effective for younger students. We know that over 10% of our students didn’t have a single virtual interaction [last spring] and it was troublesome to me to think that we might be leaving those students behind. What virtual learning looks like with a first grader is a parent doing it with them, so we are ultimately leaving our most vulnerable students behind if we don’t offer them an option to come into school.”

Teachers responded with dismay during the public comment segment of the meeting. “Having [the plan] kept from us until today felt very hurtful and disrespectful,” said Jack Jouett Middle School teacher Mary McIntyre. “We have to execute your plan. ‘Execute’ seems like an appropriate word for this. If it is so safe for us to return to school, why aren’t you having your meetings in person? You are asking us to do something you would not do yourselves.”

Though they originally planned to settle on a student schedule at the July 9 meeting, the board decided to wait until teachers had been surveyed about their opinions on the proposed scenarios (survey dates July 10-22), and parents had been surveyed regarding whether they planned to use bus transportation and whether their children would attend in-person or virtually (July 20 to 30). The board agreed to decide on a reopening plan at their July 30 meeting.

Dueling open letters

Several days after the July 9 meeting, Albemarle county teachers posted an open letter to Superintendent Matt Haas and the School Board explicitly requesting that the face-to-face learning plan be scrapped and the division instead pivot to a virtual opening. “It is unequivocally unsafe for Albemarle County staff and families to begin the year with an in-person learning model,” read the letter, which was signed by over 500 teachers from across the school system. The letter rebutted the idea that a return to in-person learning would restore a sense of “normalcy” for students, and called on the School Board to pivot to a virtual learning plan quickly to give teachers time to adequately prepare for the fall semester.

Below the letter’s text and signatories was a list of over 150 questions from teachers about how a face-to-face reopening would be handled, from overall policy considerations to day-to-day operations. In response to the teachers’ letter, Superintendent Haas posted an update on a school employee news blog in which he declared that he would present an online-only option at the School Board’s July 30 meeting, to be considered in addition to the three hybrid scenarios. 

Following the teachers’ letter, an open letter from parents was posted on Google during the week of July 20 asking the board to continue planning for in-person instruction, citing benefits to child and adolescent mental and physical well-being from attending school with their fellow students.

Finally, just ahead of the July 30 meeting, the school division hosted three Town Hall virtual gatherings on July 23, 24, and 27, intended to provide the community with updated COVID-19 health data and recommendations and to allow parents to ask questions of School Board members, who attended the meetings in pairs. The Town Halls laid bare the extent to which many basic questions about the in-person learning model remained unanswered, as school board members were unable to respond to queries such as how the virtual portion of hybrid learning would actually work and who would teach it.

After the board’s July 30 meeting in which a Stage 2 reopening was selected, the Charlottesville City Schools decided on an online-only model for their schools as well, with a forthcoming decision on whether to allow the same limited groups of students as the county to attend in-person. 

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