Younger Students Invited Back to In-Person School

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Brownsville Elementary students with special needs worked with teaching assistants in the kindergarten classrooms this fall. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The Albemarle County School Board decided at its October 8 meeting that the school division will move to Stage 3 of its reopening schedule for the second nine-week grading period this fall. Stage 3 allows preschoolers and students in grades K to 3 to attend school in person for two days per week and stay home with asynchronous virtual learning three days per week. 

The board’s decision created a stressful chicken-and-egg scenario as both teachers and families had to declare which option they preferred (in-person or online) in a quick, binding decision while operating with limited information and wondering what the other group would choose. Among the 31 public speakers at the October 8 meeting, several parents supported the reopening plan even as families were not told how the three at-home days would be conducted, nor whether students would keep their current teacher or be reassigned. 

“Virtual instruction is holding back the kids’ learning and development, and is harming 100% of the kids in the county to save 2% from getting the virus, even in its mild or asymptomatic forms,” said Shawn Boyd, father of three students in middle and high school. “Virtual learning also requires massive amounts of screen time. Kids aren’t getting the social interaction they need, and interactions help you grow.” 

The Albemarle County School Board discussed the Stage 3 reopening plan at its October 22 meeting. Photo: ACPS Zoom.

Tracy Betsworth, mother of three children at Stone Robinson Elementary, said the uncertainty inherent in Stage 3’s parameters will cause her family to stick with virtual learning. “We would send our kids back if the option was for them to stay with their same teacher and keep those relationships, because they need that consistency, but we won’t know [if that’s possible],” she said. “Also, it’s a significant increase in workload on parents on those three asynchronous days. We need clarity as parents—will there be assignments or are we just coming up with something to fill those days?” School division staff maintained that those questions could not be answered until teachers and parents made their Stage 3 requests.

All fifteen teachers who spoke at the meeting were against the reopening plan. Maggie Johnson, German teacher at Monticello High School, said, “I’m tired. I’m tired from fear, grief, and isolation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. What I’m tired from is trauma … and we have not yet begun to process that trauma. It’s not safe [to reopen schools].” 

Another 30-year Albemarle High School teacher, Erin Wise-Ackenbaum, stated that if she was required to teach in person, she’d quit. “I’m not going to put myself or my family through that,” she said. Some of the coordinators of the Albemarle Education Association, an advocacy group representing county teachers, changed their Facebook photo avatars to canaries, symbolizing their “canary in a coal mine” status amid COVID-19 concerns.

The board debated and ultimately voted 4-3 to proceed with the Stage 3 reopening plan. While some board members such as Judy Le argued against reopening because of increasing COVID risk in the community and the strain of separating students from their current teachers, White Hall representative David Oberg noted that the transition problem would be an issue whenever the jump to Stage 3 was undertaken, and that there was an argument to be made that sooner is better.

“Look, I’m not a physician,” said Oberg in remarks before voting with the majority to reopen. “My heart and gut say why would we risk [going back], but my brain says we have experts who have done the scientific analysis who say as long as we follow these sets of guidelines, we’re safe. We’ve exceeded those, so if I substitute my independent judgement for their analytical judgement, I better have a really good reason.”

The breakdown of family requests for hybrid versus virtual instruction in Stage 3. Photo: ACPS Zoom.

Student/Teacher Displacement

The shift in students’ teacher assignments is a predictable result of the division’s decision to offer families both virtual and in-person learning options—teachers simply can’t teach in both formats at the same time. Thus, a teacher who moves to in-person instruction will lose those of her students who remain virtual, and will gain the in-person students of other teachers who stay with virtual instruction. The reverse dynamic will happen for virtual teachers. 

In surveys conducted in late September, about one-third of teachers said they would request virtual instruction and one-third of families said they’d choose to remain home, and the division had hoped that those two populations would match up. “We do feel confident in our staffing for this plan,” said Clare Keiser, assistant superintendent for organizational development and human resource leadership. Seth Kennard, principal of Baker-Butler Elementary, described the number of students who would be reassigned to a different teacher as “small, but not insignificant.” 

As the October 16 deadline for commitment approached, the Stage 3 decision was wrenching for both teachers and families. Teachers were told that if they wished to remain teaching virtually but a spot was not open for them, they would have to choose between returning to in-person teaching, taking a leave of absence (without pay), retiring, or resigning. A Mountain View Elementary online town hall meeting with teachers and parents exposed deep unease with the process as teachers were unable to answer parents’ requests for more details about the asynchronous days, or which option they themselves were planning to choose. 

Despite the division’s hope that the two groups’ preferences would align, the results of the commitment survey were starkly different. Only 15% of teachers asked to be allowed to stay virtual—either via special medical waivers falling under the Americans with Disabilities Act rules, or for other high-risk health factors—while an average of 50% of families opted to continue virtual learning. Though the division had expected up to 17% of pre-K through third grade teachers to request a leave of absence for next year, only six teachers across the entire division did so.

Based on these figures, simple math predicts that up to half of all students in grades K to 3 will have to switch teachers, depending on the number of classes per grade level, and many teachers who opted for in-person instruction will be asked to remain virtual to cover demand. 

The percentage of families requesting hybrid versus virtual learning differed by grade level and for some schools skewed toward more requests for in-person learning for the youngest students. For instance, at Brownsville Elementary 64% of kindergarten families chose the hybrid option, while 74% of third grade families chose to remain virtual. At Crozet Elementary, the breakdown was a mostly even 50/50 across the grades, while both Meriwether Lewis and Murray Elementary Schools tilted more heavily toward in-person learning than any other schools in the county, at 69% and 73% (respectively) hybrid preference across all grade levels.

The breakdown of types of staff who requested to remain teaching virtually. Fifteen percent of teachers requested virtual instruction overall. Photo: ACPS Zoom.

Ahead of the first day of in-person instruction on November 11, teachers who will return to in-person instruction are scrambling to set up their classrooms and gather supplies and physical materials for hands-on learning, on top of teaching their current daily online classes. The school division promised that teachers and parents would be notified about their plans by October 30, and principals have been meeting non-stop with staff to juggle and balance requests. “As we’re talking to the principals at each of the schools, the number of virtual opportunities varies based on the student requests, so that’s what is dictating the numbers available at each school,” said Keiser. 

Once launched, Stage 3 will operate for about five weeks (including Thanksgiving break) until December 10, when Superintendent Haas and the School Board will convene again to decide whether to move to Stage 4, remain in Stage 3, or move back to all-online instruction. Stage 4 was originally described as “hybrid learning for all,” meaning all K-12 students would attend a mix of in-person and online classes. That stage could be reached as early as the beginning of the third 9-week grading period in February. Whenever that move happens, as long as virtual learning is still an option, the teacher/student mix-and-match process will have to be undertaken for all grades across the division. 

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