The Albemarle County School Board mapped out the school division’s next potential reopening steps at its December 10 meeting, outlining what a move to Stage 4 would look like and reviewing the COVID-19 conditions that would have to be satisfied before making the move. Paradoxically, the discussion took place just two days after Superintendent Matt Haas decided to pull the division back to Stage 1 (virtual learning for all students) for the school days between December 14 to January 11 as a precautionary measure.
Stage 4 provides a mix of virtual and hybrid learning for all students, though families may still choose to keep their children at home for an all-online experience if they prefer. The plan allows students in grades K-5 to attend school in-person for four days per week with Friday as an at-home day, and students in grades 6-12 to attend two days per week (either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, alternating week by week) with the other three days at home.
Secondary students are restricted to only two days per week of in-school instruction because school buildings do not have the physical space to accommodate 100% of students and still follow physical distancing requirements. Similarly, the four-day plan for upper elementary students is still tenuous and will depend on how many families request hybrid learning.
“We believe that we’ll be able to do four days with grades pre-K through 2, but we’ll have to wait and see on the numbers [from the parent survey] as to how many students we’ll have for the higher grades,” said Deputy Superintendent Debora Collins. “We would have to back it down, if you will, if we don’t have enough staff or space—then we’ll have to have grades 3, 4, and 5 only go two days a week.” Collins said the division should be able to announce whether schools can invite grades 3-5 back for two or four days per week by the January 14 School Board meeting.
As with the move to Stage 3, parents were asked to declare their commitment to either a virtual or hybrid/in-person format by December 18 with limited information about the hybrid option. Though the county posted a Stage 4 Instructional Planning Guide and answers to Frequently Asked Questions online, many questions cannot be answered until the family intent forms are tabulated, including the key issue of whether a student will keep their current teacher.
In order to meet social distancing requirements, most elementary classes will be split in half with one group taught by the current grade-level teacher and the other taught by a “partner teacher.” Partner teachers will be staff members such as art, music, and physical education teachers, teaching assistants, media specialists, talent development teachers, and interventionists (such as reading specialists). Because of this shift, “specials” will revert back to the format used in the spring of 2020 which employed “choice boards” and asynchronous activities for students, and the interventionists will be mostly assigned to Kindergarten and first grade classrooms.
Board member Judy Le asked what changed to allow four days per week for elementary students. “Wasn’t bringing K-3 back for four days not feasible at the beginning of Stage 3 because of staffing?” she asked. “Why is it possible now?”
“Now we’re adding a partner teacher,” said Collins. “We had to pause going into Stage 3 because we didn’t have the student intent information early enough. It was difficult to plan going into Stage 3 as we had only four weeks to turn that around. This time we’ll have that data earlier so we can plan our staffing to make it work.”
The challenges for teachers across all grades will be multifaceted. They must first find the time to plan for and develop a relationship with a partner teacher or coordinated section of their class. At the same time, they must ensure that students who are in an all-virtual environment will have an equitable learning experience and will progress at the same pace as in-person students. This will be particularly onerous for secondary school teachers who don’t have grade-level partners, such as those who teach specialized electives or all sections of an AP course. Those instructors will have to juggle both online and in-person students simultaneously in classes two days per week.
Thus far, division officials report that 85 percent of elementary school student families and 78 percent of secondary school student families have responded to the intent survey. The percentage of in-person requests are similar in both groups, with about 60% of families county-wide responding that they support face-to-face instruction for their children. Interestingly, WAHS’s 69% in-person request was the highest among high schools across the division, Henley’s 63% was highest among middle schools, and Murray’s whopping 90% was highest among elementary schools.
Superintendent Haas will make his recommendation on Stage 4 at the January 14 School Board meeting, and the board will discuss and make a decision the following week on January 21. That leaves only ten days before the start of the third quarter on February 1 for teachers and staff to prepare for the switch, so it’s likely that the transition may be delayed until a few weeks into February, as suggested by the School Board at their November 12 meeting.