Teachers will have the option of not returning to buildings when third stage begins Nov. 9

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After several hours of discussion Thursday night, the Albemarle County School Board at nearly 11 p.m. voted, 4-3, to allow up to 5,000 children from prekindergarten to third grade back into buildings on Nov. 9 for in-person instruction.

“Keep in mind we are talking about 5,000 students total if all parents decide to send their children to school, which is about 40% of our total enrollment,” Albemarle County Public Schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.  

Albemarle County Public Schools staff said on Thursday that teachers won’t be required to teach in-person once stage three begins.

“Teachers have a few options if we proceed to stage three. They can choose to come into school to teach in-person, ask for an accommodation to their working conditions, seek a leave of absence or continue to virtually teach,” Giaramita said. 

“Based on the discussions principals have had with teachers and the results of our survey, we are confident we will be able to staff for stage three.” 

At Thursday’s meeting, several teachers said they didn’t feel comfortable going back in the classroom, citing concerns over the increase of COVID-19 cases in the area. They’ve also said that shifting children from online to in-person could be disruptive because some children would be switching teachers. 

Cheryl Knight, a special needs teacher, said at the meeting that this was an extreme and complex decision, adding that she wouldn’t want to be in the board members’ shoes.

But she questioned many things that the administration has not communicated with her, including how classrooms will be set up as well as support for teachers’ mental health. 

Ahead of the meeting, county teacher Vernon Liechti said virtual learning is exhausting, in that there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it, but the platform has been going well for him. 

“It has been going way better than it was in the spring, and I feel very safe doing virtual instruction,” he said. 

He added that, in his opinion, it’s too soon to return to stage three. 

Liechti said his biggest concern is that COVID cases have been rising in Albemarle and Charlottesville, especially over the last two weeks.

“My worry is for the health and safety of the students, teachers and families,” he said. “… I am worried that returning to school with the current increase in COVID cases will make the spread of the disease even greater.” 

A county elementary school teacher who feared retaliation and asked not to be identified said she’s scared. 

“There’s no way we can keep children distanced from each other,” the teacher said. “There’s no way we can [keep their] masks on. And we just feel like we’re not being listened to. Our concerns are not being listened to. First of all, I think it’s bullshit that you have to say you have an underlying condition for anyone to think that you are in danger.” 

The teacher said the current hybrid model poses a health risk to the community because the model would allow children out in the community to potentially get infected and then come back again. 

The teacher said the division didn’t communicate to her that returning to school would be optional, adding that there’s a real communication breakdown.  She said that she can teach students better online than being in an environment where she would be required to keep cleaning and staying 6 feet apart. 

“I’m not [going] to do it,” the teacher said. “I’m not [going] put myself in danger. I’m not [going] to put my family in danger.” 

The division has yet to release details about how the classrooms would be set up. 

“We are with them the entire time in that one room, and, again, how do we keep them distanced? I just don’t think it’s possible with kids. And if a kid gets sick, if a kid falls down on the playground, do they expect me to stand 6 feet away?” the teacher said. “So there’s just so many unanswered questions.”

The division has taken into consideration families’ needs, but it needs to also assist teachers, she said. She agreed that in-person learning is important for younger students, but human life should come first, she said. 

“They will be fine. They will catch up,” she said. “We’re in this together. I still think that a human life is worth more.”

The division now will ask parents whether they plan to send their children to school or will continue with virtual learning, Giaramita said. 

“This information will give us a good estimate of how many children to expect at each school and how many teachers will be necessary to staff the classrooms,” he said. “Results from this inquiry are due Oct. 20 … [so the division can] have good numbers in terms of how many students to expect.” 

The children who will attend in-person classes starting in November will be divided into two equal-sized groups that will go to the schools two days a week, officials said. On Fridays, both groups will learn asynchronously, meaning that instruction would not occur in real time. 

The remaining students in grades four through 12 will remain online only. 

ACPS began the academic year in stage two, offering in-person learning to a limited number of children, such as English-language learners, children with special needs and those who don’t have adequate access to the internet.

Under stage three, additional children who met the criteria to head to school buildings under stage two will be offered options for in-person learning, officials said.

On Dec. 17, the School Board is slated to have a special meeting on what the division will do for the third nine-week grading period.