WAHS Opens Its Doors at Last

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Superintendent Matt Haas visited Laura Chatterson’s ceramics classroom at WAHS. Photo: Michael Marshall.

Albemarle County middle and high schools were finally given the green light to return to in-person instruction, which began in force on March 15 after the sixth and ninth grade classes attended a couple of orientation days the week prior. While about 55 percent of all county high school students opted for in-person learning, Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) had the highest in-person participation rate at 69 percent. Similarly, though middle schools had an in-person rate of 57 percent overall, Henley topped the list with 65 percent returning face to face.

“We had 800 students who said they would come back, but we’re down a few from that,” said Assistant Principal Teresa Tyler. The cohort is split into two halves alphabetically by last name, each of which attends two days per week. “We could not fit them all at one time right now because of the CDC [distancing] guidelines, so A through K comes on Monday/Wednesday and L through Z on Tuesday/Thursday,” she said.

Superintendent Matt Haas visited classrooms throughout WAHS on the first day back for all grades, waving to teachers and popping into classes. “It’s a great day, and I’m glad to see you all back here at school,” he called out to the students. Haas’ own daughter is a senior this year at Albemarle High School, and he said she was excited to finally meet her teachers in person.

“She texted earlier and said, ‘They’re all so nice!’” said Haas, who noted that the online schedule allowed his daughter to explore new avenues over the past year. “Since July she’s been working at a child development center in Charlottesville, and it’s become a real passion for her. She could get her virtual classes done and then immediately go to work, so it’s been a real silver lining. I think right now schools are at the point of helping you do whatever works for you, and I think that’s something that could be a takeaway—you should really always be flexible like that.”

Laura Chatterson, veteran ceramics and crafts teacher, worked all school year to be flexible enough to keep clay in students’ hands, even at home. “Over the summer, my ceramics teacher partners at Albemarle and Monticello and I all started talking about what we could do, how to get materials to the kids and how to plan projects they could do independently,” she said. “We also had to consider what their parents would feel comfortable with at home, because clay is messy.”

Chatterson supplied her students with clay and taught them online lessons, then had them drop off their work on a table outside Western so she could fire and glaze the projects. “I put a big spreadsheet online for [glaze] colors for them to choose, but since there are 80 students and only one of me, I’m a little behind on the glazing,” she said with a smile. 

Chatterson was happy to engage her students artistically during online-only instruction, including by helping about a dozen of them check out pottery wheels to use at home. “It has been a great opportunity for them to be creative and get off the computer for a while, and the tactile quality of [working with clay] made it a good outlet I think,” she said. “But now I’m glad they’re here in person!” She had fairly small classes the first couple of days, ranging from two to eight students in person, and she was pleased that four students showed up for her “early bird” class.

Still, there was no milling around in the school’s common areas or library, no crush of people during class change, and classrooms were tranquil with a handful of students spread out in distanced seats. Frank Lawson’s sports medicine class was one of the largest in the building with 14 in-person students on reopening day and another 13 joining online. “We just finished some student presentations and they still have a quiz to take, but there was a vote that everybody wanted to have lunch, so we’re taking a break for that,” said Lawson. Though the cafeteria spaces are roped off so students don’t gather there, the school bought a set of plastic laundry baskets for contactless ferrying of lunches back to classrooms.

Lawson had his laptop turned so he could keep an eye on his online students, and he had a camera set up on a wood block that he could rotate to aim toward any relevant action in the classroom. “It’s really crazy to have one group at home and one group here, but it’s working,” he said. Given that some students are still uncertain about returning and others are unable to come in for various reasons, it’s unlikely that there will be an all in-person class by the end of the school year on June 15. “For instance, right now the entire girls’ field hockey team, both varsity and JV, is quarantined,” said Lawson. “That’s a lot of kids.”

Maddie, a sophomore in the sports medicine class, said she was a bit on the fence about returning but is glad she did. “I would say I was nervous about how it would be, and if there would be any community aspect to being here,” she said. “It’s definitely not what I anticipated because we’re all having fun in here.” Asked about how much influence her parents wielded in her decision, she said they let her choose on her own. “They definitely encouraged it because it’s hard being at home, being on Zoom all the time and missing being with people.”

Maddie described the pervasive uncertainty among her peers about returning to in-person instruction as she thought about the prospects for “normalcy” next school year. “I asked a lot of friends if they were coming [today] because I was nervous about whether I’d be by myself, and some are here, but a lot of my friends still aren’t here,” she said. “I think some will come back this year, but they wanted to hear about it first before they came back. [If not,] maybe they will change their minds for next year. I hope so.” 

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Lisa Martin
Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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