County Schools Ease Into In-Person Instruction

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Crozet Elementary third graders attended in-person with half the class at a time in a distanced classroom during Stage 3. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Albemarle County students in pre-K through third grade began attending in-person classes two days a week on November 11, and Principal Gwedette Crummie at Crozet Elementary says the transition has gone well thanks to both teachers and parents. “Given the [survey] numbers from families that we were seeing in October, you would have thought it was going to be a huge rush to the building for hybrid learning, but it was not,” said Crummie. 

In the western district, about half of families decided to send their children back into schools and half stayed with virtual learning. “I respect every parent’s decision,” said Crummie. “It’s a tough call for them and I fully understand that. I tell them to do what’s best for their family and safety first.” Conversely, while teachers across the school division had voiced grave concerns about the reopening, only about 15% asked their principals to allow them to continue with online instruction.

“We did end up with some large virtual classes, but I was blessed at my school,” said Crummie. “We generally have three teachers per grade, so we had to figure out the balance. For instance, our first grade was the highest percentage for virtual students, so two of the teachers went virtual and one hybrid.” Teachers who asked for virtual accommodations using the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines were granted those exceptions by quarter. “For now, it’s a yes for all of those teachers, but that doesn’t mean a yes for next quarter, so that’s a little bit of stress for those folks in difficult situations,” said Crummie. 

Family decisions on in-person versus virtual instruction are binding until November 30, and the school does a case-by-case analysis if there are problems. “It comes down to safety and space and staffing,” said Crummie. “The next stage [which provides hybrid options up to four days a week for all students] is going to be interesting, but for right now it’s settled nicely. Within our school community, I feel like the parents have been overwhelmingly supportive and have been showing so much love. For some parents the transition was a challenge, but they understood.”

Crozet Elementary (CRES) took steps before and after the transition to emphasize unity among the students even as they separated into different tracks. “We’ve done a literacy book-of-the-month for everyone, which is Our Class is a Family [by Shannon Olsen], with the idea that no matter where you are, we’re a family, and we did that before we split,” said Crummie. CRES is using common pacing guides and assessments across classes, even as virtual and hybrid instruction daily schedules can be significantly different simply due to time spent moving from place to place, washing hands, and enforcing mask-wearing.

“The pacing is a tough issue, but the teachers are literally just leaning into each other to make it work,” said Crummie. “There are division-level Professional Learning Community meetings on Fridays, so team leaders come back with ideas and they all work on how to keep that balance and equity between virtual and hybrid. They are really figuring it out, reflecting and making adjustments each week.” 

Crozet Elementary first graders attend in-person classes in a distanced classroom set up in the cafeteria. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The class transitions and future uncertainty have meant longer work weeks for everyone involved. “It’s the nature of the situation we’re in, there’s just no way you can get it done within your regular hours,” said Crummie. “It takes time to plan out everything that’s different and new.” The CRES staff tries to ease student and family worries about having to switch teachers by allowing as much shared access as possible. “I’ve told teachers that everything they do with parents, do it together [with the other grade-level teachers] so there’s that familiar bond,” she said. “And students can always chat with their former teacher if need be.”

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All told, the Stage 3 reopening sent 2,700 students back into schools, put 140 buses on the road, and allowed 75-150 students to participate in high school athletic conditioning activities. Meanwhile, the school division’s decision about moving to Stage 4—originally scheduled to be discussed at the School Board’s December 10 meeting and (potentially) put into effect at the start of the third quarter on Feb 1—has been deferred. 

At the November 12 School Board meeting, division COVID coordinator Eileen Gomez presented data showing that the county’s case incidence rate and percent positivity had both been decreasing over the prior 14 days. Strategic Planning Officer Patrick McLaughlin noted that although the number of new cases per 100,000 persons in Albemarle put the county in a higher risk category, the division has fully implemented the CDC’s five key mitigation strategies, which puts it in the lowest risk category.

McLaughlin said that based on “stakeholder feedback,” the division proposed a shift in the decision-making timeline, which pushes the board decision out to January 21 and any move to Stage 4 to mid-February, a week or two after the third quarter has begun. The division hopes to provide families with more detailed operational and instructional plans ahead of a Stage 4 change than they did with Stage 3, to better enable parents and students to make the online/in-person decision.

Board member Katrina Callsen asked about the wisdom of putting teachers in the position to have to switch from online to in-person instruction two weeks into the quarter, which would be in the midst of entirely new classes for middle and high school students. When Callsen questioned why the board would choose to deviate from its planned timeline, White Hall representative David Oberg pointed out that a quicker timeline would mean the analyses would have to be done over winter break. A straw vote among the board was 5-2 in favor of delaying the decision, though they may revisit the timeline at their December 10 meeting. 

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