Charlottesville City Schools should be commended for its revised Return-to-School-Plan released on July 2 – particularly, the increased face-to-face learning for grades K-6 and giving all families the option for full-time school-supported distance learning. Our schools are faced with tough choices on tight time frames while our knowledge keeps evolving, and we should all give thanks to the hard work of the CCS planning staff. Plans will have to be flexible and any approach to instruction this fall will most certainly need to include a distance learning component and a weekly planning/professional development day for teachers. However, our top goal should remain at least four days a week of in-person instruction for all students that need it.
Students at Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School will still only be attending school two days a week to reduce building occupancies by 50%. If too many K-6 parents sign up for face-to-face instruction, we will run up against the goal of classrooms of 12 or fewer. The American Academy of Pediatrics has “strongly advocated that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” This advice has been echoed by healthy building experts like Joseph Allen of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As we learn more and more about this terrible virus, experts are telling us that the social, emotional and health risks of keeping children out of school outweigh the risks of returning to school – if we follow basic guidelines which are practicable and achievable. These include mask wearing and 6-foot physical distancing for adult-to-adult contact in schools but would allow children to have closer interactions/play with each other – especially at the elementary level. The AAP states that “Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative. Strict adherence to a specific size of student groups should be discouraged in favor of other risk mitigation strategies”.
Distance learning will be independent work, which could have the devastating effect of widening socioeconomic achievement gaps. If we do proceed with schools at partial occupancy, then we need to do all we can as a community to supplement the at-home days. In the face of budget cuts, we somehow need to produce more instructors and more space to instruct.
Let’s apply our best creative thinking to this. Many college students are considering gap years – let’s work with the University of Virginia and other higher ed institutions to provide tuition reductions for people willing to serve in a local CovidCorps as tutors and mentors in public schools. Our high school students could “declare majors” in subjects they love and get class credit for tutoring younger students. Let’s use classrooms on Fridays for supplemental instruction and use the city-as-a-school on other days: gyms, rec centers, libraries can be utilized. Local businesses could offer their empty office spaces for small group tutoring. PE for Buford MS and Charlottesville HS students could be off-site on off-days, creating more instruction time. This is also a great opportunity to organize regular outings to get kids out into nature.
Let’s continue to waive mandatory standardized testing requirements and free teachers up to do what they do best – connect with children based upon their individual needs. Teachers that are more at risk or uncomfortable returning could focus solely on remote instruction. CCS has stated that current housekeeping staff is insufficient for daily sanitation – so let’s hire during this time of unemployment. And all school staff should be paid more to do this critical work. Even in a time of reduced revenue, we have the public and private financial resources to do this. Interest rates have never been more favorable for issuing bonds and “rainy day” reserves exist for moments just like this. Let’s be nimble, let’s be creative, and most of all, let’s be generous when it comes to our children in public schools. If we are serious about addressing systemic problems of inequity, we need to respond to this moment with full-throated support for our schools.
Wyck Knox is a Charlottesville City Schools parent and an architect specializing in the design of K-12 facilities with VMDO Architects in Charlottesville. VMDO is a corporate sponsor of Charlottesville Tomorrow.