Albemarle county schools superintendent Matt Haas announced on April 19 that public schools will reopen in the fall in stage 5, which means a return to every day, in-person instruction for grades K-12. To accommodate those families who cannot or don’t wish to attend school in-person, the division will be establishing a new “virtual school”—an official, stand-alone school unit with its own teachers, staff, and principal that will serve elementary, middle, and high school online students.
“The virtual school will be an exciting component for next year,” said Haas. “We have talked about this for a long time, being able to offer this for families who are interested in fully online schooling. We’ll be able to leverage all of the lessons we’ve learned around student internet access and from our teachers who have learned to teach in the virtual environment. I’m super proud of that, and we’ll be able to offer a really high-quality program.”
The division plans to advertise for teaching positions in the new school to candidates both internal and outside of the school system. Parent surveys have indicated that about 10% of families would prefer to have their children attend virtual school, which equates to about 1,400 students across all grades, or an average of about 110 students per grade level, county-wide. For western district schools in particular, between 6 and 9% of families said they intend to send kids to virtual school.
“This is a great option for students who thrive in that environment,” said Haas, “and they will still be able to access other programming at our [physical] schools, such as high school students who want to participate in extracurricular activities or athletics.”
Instruction at the virtual school will be completely synchronous, meaning all classes will require students and teachers to be present screen-to-screen, as it were, and students will have to have their video and microphones on during classes, unlike the procedures that have been allowed during the 2020-21 school year.
Haas believes there will be demand for virtual instruction even after the pandemic upheaval is past. “I think we will have, perennially, five to ten percent of our school population, for various reasons, attending a virtual school,” he said. “Sometimes we do what we call ‘homebound instruction’ if a student can’t attend school for a medical reason, and what happens is they invariably get behind, so this may be something that could really help those students as they could transfer to the virtual school during that time. I also know there are all sorts of reasons why parents home-school their children, so if there’s a way that virtual school could work for them, they could come as well.”
The school division is also making plans for a four-week summer program to be held in July, which will focus on student “recovery.” “We are going to leverage significant funding from the federal government to offer full-day summer programming that will be free for all students,” said Haas. “We’ll have an academic component in the morning, and afternoon programming that focuses on physical activity and social-emotional well-being.” The division reported that 53% of families responded that they were interested in the summer program in a recent survey.
The division is guaranteeing every K-8 student at least one week of the summer program, and students that are identified by their schools as needing extra time and support will be invited for more time, up to the full month. Haas said the division has put out a proposal to solicit bids for the afternoon portion from summer camp-style programming providers both large and small, local and national. Because of the ongoing negotiation process, details as to which company will provide that programming have not yet been released.
“We were worried about teachers being interested in teaching the academic portion [of the summer program], but when we put out the word about offering stipends to teachers to work in the summer, we’ve had a great response,” said Haas. At WAHS, teachers were offered the opportunity to pitch their ideas for credit recovery and course remediation classes for high-schoolers who need to catch up on coursework they’ve missed. The classes would be taught in a four-hour per day, three-week program for which teachers were offered a $600 stipend.
“We are in a strange time where we have a lot of federal dollars headed our way,” said Haas. “Coming up will be the third round of federal funding associated with the pandemic, and what that allows us to do is to use these large sums of one-time money to start programs so that if they are effective, we’ll commit our next dollars in the next budget cycle to keep them going.” Haas noted that the students who attend the virtual school “have education funding attached to them and it will follow them,” to allow for new teacher hires and other expenses.
Looking ahead to the adjustments that will need to be made in schools to prepare for the Stage 5 reopening, Haas said that most are related to capacity. “One of the difficulties for in-person schooling will be the spacing requirements,” he said, referring to the decision to retain 3-foot distancing between students. “We have a wide variance in classroom size across our schools, and there will be some schools that will need additional modular classroom space (i.e., trailers) for students to fit.”
Four schools in particular—Henley plus the three major high schools—have spacing issues and will require trailers or other supplementary spaces. In addition, Haas said that school buses will be upgraded to use HEPA filtration systems to aid with transporting more kids.