When Charlottesville City and Albemarle County Public schools braced for indefinite closures as the COVID-19 pandemic approached, Shantisha Allen’s first emotion was panic. A mother of four children – three of whom attend city schools – Allen estimated her family’s transition to online schooling would last just a few weeks. But then weeks gave way to months — and months to nearly a full year of virtual learning. “It became panic, and then became scary, and it became real — like, we’re going to have to do this,” Allen said. “I didn’t think we would still be here a year later.”Now — after months of virtual instruction and reopening delays — her children, alongside others in CCS and ACPS, are phasing into in-person instruction.But many hope that lessons learned from the ongoing pandemic will reverberate even after the school day resembles normalcy.
Last March’s sudden switch to virtual learning compounded existing inequities in the public education system both locally and across the country. From inadequate internet access in rural areas to socioeconomic strain among immigrant families, the pandemic’s impact has been uneven.
“We need to approach the past year with the assumption that existing inequities in opportunities, access and outcomes will have been amplified,” Nancy Deutsch, director of Youth-Nex at the University of Virginia, said. “We have to be aware of that. That’s displayed itself in many ways, and it will continue to come out as kids come back into school in-person.”Shortly before the pandemic’s onset, Allen had begun working for InstaCart — a job she chose to stop to facilitate her children’s at-home learning. The months that followed involved “a lot of penny-pinching and decision-making and finding resources,” she said. “It was stressful having to pick sometimes — like, do I go back? But if I go back, I can’t guarantee their education,” Allen said. “I chose to make it and be home with them to make sure they stay on top of their education because this is something that, once you lose it, you can’t get it back.”The initial transition online was tricky, Allen said. She juggled navigating her youngest daughter’s individualized education program and helping her son, who attends the Virginia Institute of Autism, do virtual occupational and speech therapy. Although drained herself, Allen said she stayed motivated to keep her kids motivated, too. Support from the school system, teachers and other families aided Allen’s decision to stay at home with her children. For example, both CCS and ACPS delivered daily meals to families across the city and county. Other local solutions emerged, as well.
Angel Feero, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Johnson Elementary School, serves as the elementary coordinator for Abundant Life Ministries — a faith-based organization in the Prospect neighborhood that set up learning centers at Christ Episcopal Church and Buford Middle School to assist students and parents with virtual learning. Feero previously worked at Abundant Life as an after-school tutor but transitioned to supporting kindergarten through fifth grade students at Christ Episcopal when the pandemic hit. She said the children in her program grew frustrated with hourslong screen times and struggled to stay engaged. Confronted with the challenges of virtual schooling, Feero became an early advocate of in-person learning in August, when many parents preferred to remain virtual. “It was very lonely at times because it felt like they weren’t very many people saying what I was saying, and [the School Board was] hearing a lot more from the parts of the community who were more fearful … just because that wasn’t their experience,” Feero said. “There were a lot of people who were privileged to be home and work from home, and they felt like ‘this isn’t ideal, but my kid’s doing fine.’”“I was pushing for [in-person learning] since August, because just my concern and the community that I work with, is mainly Black and brown and working class, and I saw the way that they were disproportionately affected by an all virtual education system”
The social and emotional toll of the pandemic on the children Feero works with extended throughout the school system’s student population. Deutsch, whose research examines the socio-ecological contexts of adolescent development, said the stress of social isolation — coupled with the various other stressors of COVID-19 — can negatively impact students’ mental health and deplete their cognitive systems. Even for students who engage well with virtual instruction, Deutsch said that “they’re still likely to have more limited cognitive capacities than they would in another year.”Bethany Crawley, a fourth-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary, said her virtual pedagogy pivoted to focus heavily on her students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. Although her class continued through its curriculum, Crawley made space during class time for students to share their emotions.“There were times where we had to let the focus shift from academics to caring for their hearts and their souls,” Crawley said. With her fourth-graders now learning in-person, Crawley plans to continue allowing her students to share their joy and feelings in the classroom. Her students have the option to change and style their desktop name tags each day, for example. “There’s no way that we can expect kids to focus on academics, when we don’t address kind of their underlying needs of life,” Crawley said.
As students across Charlottesville and Albemarle trickle back into the classroom, Deutsch hopes that schools can maintain their focus on students’ individual wellbeing. “We need to spend the spring and summer helping support kids in being whole again — helping them get back on their feet socially and emotionally and focus on getting back that sense of stability,” Deutsch said. County schools expanded its in-person hybrid model March 10 through Stage 4 of the district’s staggered return to learn plan. The move brought in an additional 4,000 elementary schoolers to in-person instruction, and 4,100 secondary schoolers will attend face-to-face classes next week.
A steering team at ACPS is crafting an academic program to address social-emotional and academic recovery within the student body. Bolstered by federal stimulus funds, the programs will be available to all county students starting this summer. “Normally, it’s more select for students that need extra time and support, but we’re saying if you want to come in for academics, you’ll be able to do it,” ACPS Superintendent Matt Haas told Charlottesville Tomorrow. CCS is likewise working to expand its summer school offerings. Preschool through sixth-grade students returned to hybrid in-person instruction at city schools Monday. Students in higher grades with particular learning needs were permitted to return as well, and seventh- through 12th-grade students will have the option to attend hybrid in-person instruction starting April 12. Among those who returned to city schools this week were Allen’s son and Feero’s daughter, who attend Johnson Elementary. Allen’s older son also returned to in-person instruction at VIA in November.Both Feero and Allen said their children have been excited to see their teachers and classmates again. “My son that goes to VIA, he was extremely happy to go back. He’s always happy to go back because they’re good with their kids, too,” Allen said. “My youngest … he had a smile on his face when I picked him up the first day, and he does every day.”Although normalcy feels within reach as vaccines become more widely available, Allen would like to see public schooling progress forward — not return to normal. The ongoing pandemic has “really exposed the needs in our community and school system” along socioeconomic and racial lines, Allen said.“The spirit of everyone ready to pitch in is something I hope keeps growing, pandemic or not, and I hope more access to basic learning essentials will be given to every resident of our city,” Allen said. “We need it, we deserve it and it’s necessary for our children to keep growing and able to have every opportunity regardless of skin color or background or what neighborhood they are from.”Deutsch also wants the lessons of the pandemic to improve public education. She said that the transition offers school systems the opportunity to — in conversation with principals, parents and teachers — “rethink and recenter education around individual youth’s needs.”Crawley plans to take a similar approach with her students by targeting instruction to her fourth-graders’ current needs as they ease back into the classroom. “It’s not super helpful for me as a teacher to just think of all the things that we aren’t doing and haven’t done, and it’s not super helpful for the kids to hear ‘you’re not where you should be, you’re behind,’” Crawley said. “And they’re not behind — they are surviving a pandemic, and that is about as much as you can ask of anybody.”