School Board Shifts Reopening Rules, Allows Sports

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Western Albemarle High School winter sports athletes are able to continue participation even during Stage 1 reopening thanks to a School Board decision to “decouple” athletics and extracurricular activities from reopening stages. Photo: Delaney White.

The Albemarle School Board once again grappled with how and when to reopen schools to in-person learning at its January 14 meeting, a four-hour affair that included debate over a new wrinkle—what to do about high school athletics. After mandating that K-12 instruction return to Stage 1 (all-online) for the two weeks on either side of winter break, then allowing one week of Stage 3 (hybrid instruction for grades K-3) in mid-January, Superintendent Matt Haas again pulled the division back to Stage 1 on January 19 for a minimum of two weeks, citing increases in the community spread of COVID-19. 

Like a yo-yo

The Superintendent now appears to wield sole authority over movement between Stages 1 to 3, needing only board assent to move to Stage 4 (varying levels of in-person instruction for all students K-12). Though initially adhering to a board-approved plan to reevaluate the proper stage of reopening midway through each academic quarter, Haas announced at the meeting that he would “no longer be making recommendations tied to marking periods.” Instead, he plans to recommend the division’s opening stage on a week-to-week basis.

“Beginning on Wednesday, January 27, and continuing each Wednesday that we remain virtual, the school division will announce the instructional stage we will be in for the following week,” read an ACPS press release. Objections to this plan came from all quarters during the public comment period.

Brooks Family YMCA CEO and Brownsville Elementary parent Jessica Maslaney described the chaotic effects the plan will have on the Y’s Early Learning Center. “We support upwards of 300 children each day, most of whom don’t have other options,” she said. “The week-to-week stage announcement does not give us adequate time to plan accordingly and to establish a routine … and we cannot guarantee consistent employment of our staff past next week. To date we’ve had zero confirmed student cases. As a community member we kindly request that you reconsider and identify future stages by dates.” 

Agnor-Hurt teacher Debbie Stollings said that in addition to worrying about her colleagues and students, “Now each Tuesday evening I’m going to worry about which stage we will be in the following week. Talk about trauma and stress for teachers.” Stollings implored the school division to rethink the week-by-week policy. “We are in survival mode, doing the best we can,” she said. “We want to feel supported and know that someone is advocating for us.”

Even School Board member Katrina Callsen expressed dismay with the plan’s fluctuations. “It’s almost impossible to stay on top of, when you’ve arranged childcare and then the next week the plan has changed,” she said. “When we were a week out from moving up to Stage 3, I asked, ‘Are we really doing this?’ and literally five days later we’re back to Stage 1. I’ve been paying attention and when we’re talking about ‘next week we’ll drop it down or put it back up,’ it’s confusing.” Despite her frustration, Callsen did not suggest that the board reclaim its authority to control the lower reopening stages from the Superintendent.

Though Haas insisted that the division is not recommending week to week decisions with respect to the Stage 4 reopening, he did acknowledge that “[I]t’s been a yo-yo here recently and that wasn’t my intention. It’s been an up and down for families.” Two weeks later, on January 27, Haas re-reopened schools for Stage 3 hybrid learning.

A good sport

When the division moved down to Stage 1 in mid-January, one casualty would have been high school athletic and extracurricular activities for students who had been allowed to meet and practice under Stage 3 guidelines. Virginia High School League (VHSL) practices had started on December 7 and games were set to begin on January 15. In addition to live sports, the division had 95 students participating in jazz band, drumline, color guard, choir, drama/film, and JROTC training. 

A reversion to Stage 1 would have shut down all of these activities, and a large contingent of students, parents, and coaches had signed up to speak at the January 14 meeting to ask the board to make an exception for sports and extracurriculars. In an attempt to stave off the outcry, the board inserted an item into its agenda just before the public comment period proposing to “decouple” these activities from the Stage 1 requirements. In a 6-1 vote, the decoupling passed.

“This is tough for me, I’ll be honest,” said David Oberg, White Hall District representative, “because there’s an appearance that if we [allow] sports but not school then we’re saying academic programs are less important than the other programs. That’s not what any of us believes, but there’s a concern that that’s what we’re telegraphing. But I’ve had some pretty concerning emails from students who are expressing, really, beyond angst—that it’s a mental health issue, they need it.”

Board member Judy Le was the lone “no” vote. “It’s hard to get my head around saying our buildings are not safe enough for students who have insufficient internet access or have special needs or are English language learners or are just not engaged, but they’re safe enough for these [sports and other] activities where the respiration is higher,” said Le. “[Allowing] this during Stage 1 carries with it a lot of cognitive dissonance for me.”

Most of the queued commenters from the puablic chose to speak anyway to make the case for sports and extracurriculars as being beneficial to students in terms of academic achievement, concentration and attention, and physical well-being. However, WAHS teacher Erin Wise-Ackenbom strongly disagreed. “I think [allowing sports and extracurriculars to continue during Stage 1] is totally irresponsible,” she said. “I’m shocked, shocked. I understand that kids want to do it, I have been a parent of a teenager and I understand very well, but without contacting doctors and nurses, is this a good idea? I don’t think so.”

Vaccine for thee

Also during the public comment section, an issue involving the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations for educators was raised by Stone-Robinson teacher Michelle Drago. “I have a grave concern about the rollout of the vaccine for teachers,” said Drago, “and we have not been given a specific time line. Our fellow teachers in Charlottesville City schools are receiving their first vaccines as early as January 21. Why has ACPS not secured vaccines for us? Many of us have had to work in person with students for months now, and the county has not been as proactive as our neighboring district. Our health is being undervalued.”

Superintendent Haas said there has been no negligence on the part of ACPS or the Blue Ridge Health District (BRHD). “We are following our parts of the plan. Our highest priority is our staff and students’ health.” Haas asked BRHD director of policy and planning Ryan McKay to address the question, and McKay’s answer pointed to an error by Charlottesville City Schools in uploading their lists of both 1A and 1B (vaccination priority level) people at the same time in their first tranche. 

“It was not our intent for uploads of 1B city schools and other organizations to begin before there was an opportunity for everybody [in 1A] to access the vaccine. The [county] schools did everything they had been asked to do and were following guidance. Clearly our messaging wasn’t as strong as it needed to be regarding the timelines, and while unintentional, now we’ll have to move a little more quickly to finalize some plans about how we’re going to provide greater access not just for the community but for school employees and government employees.”  

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