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Former Albemarle County Public Schools parent Kelsey Parente said she has lost confidence in the public school system due to the way education plans were handled around the novel coronavirus. 

Kate Duvall and her husband work full-time, and they are former parents of two Charlottesville City Schools students. Duvall said she was concerned about her children’s mental well-being. 

Laura Panzarella, also a former city school parent, said her kindergartner walked away from the computer and didn’t want to participate in virtual learning, which was challenging. There was a lot of crying to get him to do his work, she said. 

All three families pulled their children out of the public school systems, a decision that a half-dozen local parents said was based on many factors, including mental well-being, challenges faced with virtual learning and child care. 

The decision has a financial impact on the public schools because some funding is based on student enrollment. Last month, Charlottesville Tomorrow examined the financial impact of an expected decline in student enrollment in the county schools. The county school division was expecting a 500-student drop in enrollment, which could have meant up to a $1.5 million hit to the budget. 

While the division previously said that that type of revenue shortfall would likely necessitate budget cuts, $1.5 million is less than 1% of the division’s annual $208 million budget. 

Parents also have said one of the biggest hurdles in the decision-making process to quit the public schools was the financial burden on their family. 

Parente, a physician assistant in orthopedics at University of Virginia Health, said her family needed childcare. The Parentes knew they were going to opt for private schools early on after realizing the public schools were not going to reopen in person. 

Parente said virtual learning in the spring was not a “very positive experience,” and her child who needed one-on-one attention didn’t get much out of it.

“It was not individualized at all,” she said. “It was very basic. He just needed more.” 

An empty classroom stands ready at Walker Elementary School. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

When the schools shut down, her husband, an athletic trainer for the women’s soccer team at UVA, was at home for a while. But when things started reopening, the family knew they were going to need child care. It was either they hire a nanny or send their son to a private school.

To better assist the family, she stressed the county schools could’ve reopened in-person.

 The county schools in a split vote last week voted to expand in-person learning to allow up to 5,000 children in the school buildings from kindergarten to third grade. 

Additionally, children with special needs, those who don’t have access to adequate internet access and those who are English-language learners are among students being offered in-person instructions in the county. 

But Parente said she won’t be considering public school this year for a few reasons such as having already committed to a private school setting and her child doing well and seeming happy.

She plans to hold off on enrolling her child back in ACPS until she gains confidence again in the school division. 

Duvall said she realized the inequity in her decision and that not all parents have the option to opt for a private setting. But she said she was concerned about her children’s mental well-being and not liking school anymore because her youngest was not engaged in virtual learning. 

A mother of a first- and fourth-grader, Duvall said it was not an easy decision, but reflecting on her experience in the spring and the stressors of virtual learning not only for her children but her husband she couldn’t pass on the opportunity to enroll in a private school.

“It was a combination that it was going to be virtual,” she said. “And our son struggled with virtual learning in the spring. We have some concerns about the safety of having our children in a closed school setting.”

Kelsey Parente said she had to pull her son out of the public school system because she and her husband had to work outside the home. Credit: Credit: Submitted by Kelsey Parente

Her children attend a private outdoor school. 

The city schools have partnered with third parties to assist parents with virtual learning, including the YMCA. But by the time that option became available, Duvall said she had already enrolled her children in private school.

She could return to the public school system because she did not commit to the private school for a whole year, but there would be a financial penalty.

Returning to the city schools when an in-person option is made available would be a tough decision, she said, because her concerns about COVID-19 safety still linger.  

“We just would have to weigh all those things and talk to our kids and see what they want,” she said.

Virtual learning was hard, she said. 

“We’re not teachers. Neither my husband nor I are teachers. We [know] that is a skillset,” she said. “There’s a reason people are teachers. They have the skills and the patience and all the virtues that one needs to be a teacher.” 

Her children do not listen to her as they would listen to their teachers, she said, adding that she was frustrated with her own kids in different ways that a teacher would.

“Our daughter did OK with virtual learning because she’s older, but our son didn’t really do OK. It really upset him,” she said. 

She said her son would’ve wanted to interact in person with her teacher and peers, which caused him to disengage. Now, her son is learning about bugs something he wouldn’t be learning in a regular school setting. 

“I want them to like going to school,” she said. “I want them to like active learning.” 

Panzarella, the mother of a first and fourth-grader who formerly were in Charlottesville City Schools, said she wouldn’t consider going back to public schools because if the schools only accepted kindergarten through third grade, her children would be in different places. 

“They’re doing well. They go to school every day,” she said. “They’re wearing masks all day long, but they’re doing fine with that. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with them cooperating or any of the students cooperating.”  

Meredith and Bryce Powell also pulled their children out of the public school system. 

They once considered learning pods, which are designed to allow children to learn in person in small groups as a skilled adult or parent assists them with their scheduled daily learning.

But the Powells didn’t want to overwhelm another family, knowing how much work it requires to assist a first-grader, Bryce Powell said. 

“It was overwhelming. We were worried that we would get stuck if they quit or if they got sick, or if it really didn’t work for our kids,” Meredith Powell said.

Meredith Powell said her daughter was just starting to read. For her to benefit from learning on the computer, her reading skills needed to be stronger, she also said. 

But if the opportunity to attend the city schools again arise, she would consider it. 

“We love Johnson Elementary School,” she said. “The school itself is such an awesome community. … It was a tough decision. We felt like we were leaving a community that we loved and loved our kids. It did feel like we were turning our backs on them a little bit. That was hard because we love that community.” 

 A selling point for Bryce Powell is the diversity of the city schools, something he said he missed.

Moving forward, Bryce Powell said local school officials could have thought outside the box a little to better accommodate parents — they could’ve set up tents outside the schools because the buildings are located on vast lawns. 

“It’s not like they were given the best amount of information from the state or the federal government either,” he said. “And I think one of the reasons their plans kept changing is the information they were given kept changing as well.” 

Man in gray jack looks at camera with slight smile

Billy Jean Louis

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.