While Albemarle County Public Schools plans to selectively open its doors this fall to a small group of students with special needs or limited internet access, Charlottesville City Schools will be entirely virtual.

The slightly different plans could create wildly different learning experiences for some of the area’s more vulnerable children.

“I am actually happy with the [Albemarle County Public Schools’] decision,” said Angela Bufford, an Albemarle parent of six, two of whom have special needs. 

“I was so worried about the two with the learning disabilities falling behind,” she said. “They’re not in your basic core classes. They’re learning life skills, like, hands-on stuff. They need that structured school environment in order to learn it, understand it and comprehend it. It just doesn’t happen here.”

Though Charlottesville parents have expressed similar concerns, it’s unclear how that division intends to work with their special needs students or English-language learners. School officials did not address the issue at Thursday’s marathon School Board meeting, in which board members voted for a virtual-only start after nearly six hours of deliberation.

A division spokeswoman on Friday said the division would not provide any information about its plans until its Aug. 6 board meeting.

“I’m worried about all my kids,” said Roxana Melquiades, a Charlottesville mother of six. “But I’m most worried about my 6-year-old.” 

Melquiades’ 6-year-old son is autistic and has a chromosomal disorder, she said. He’s not capable of learning online, she said.

“His therapies are canceled,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “He had occupational therapy, language therapy and another. It was all canceled. Instead of advancing, he’s falling behind. This is what worries me.”

Melquiades was quick to add, however, that she would not want her child to attend in-person school even if he could. His disorder makes his immune system weak, she said. She lives in fear of him contracting coronavirus.

“Health is the most important,” Melquiades said. “And, thank God, we are all healthy. So, for now, everything is on hold. There’s nothing we can do.”

Those health concerns led Charlottesville’s board to unanimously vote to open virtual only Thursday. But Albemarle grappled with the decision — weighing their students’ educational needs against concerns for their health. 

“Whichever way we go today, our division has an enormous task of how to educate and serve all our populations,” said Albemarle School Board member Judy Lee, who voted against bringing any children back to school. 

“For me, when there are going to be [future] quarantines, and we know there are going to be, I think we will wish we had concentrated on serving those populations now and spend the next month figuring out how we do serve them.”

The Albemarle decision came after an impassioned School Board initially voted 4-3 for an exclusively virtual start to the year. Then, board member David Oberg — who had voted for an all-virtual start — called for a second vote where he then voted to bring special needs children, English-language learners and children who don’t have internet access into the classroom.

“You made some pretty compelling arguments,” Oberg said to his fellow board members who had argued for an online only plan.

The county’s plan will bring between 1,000 and 1,500 of the division’s 14,000 children into the schools, said Phil Giaramita, a county schools spokesman. 

Most of those will be children who can’t access the internet at home or are learning English. About 100 of the in-person students will be those with special needs, he said.

Not all special needs children will be allowed to come to school, however — only those who the district has determined cannot adequately learn at home. In-person contacts for those children are vital, Giaramita said.

“Because they cannot access the curriculum at home because of the nature of their disability, they would do better in a class with a learning coach,” he said. 

All in-person options are voluntary, he added. The children whose parents elect to send them will be in groups of 10 with a learning coach. 

“What’s important about this is that the learning coach or the teacher that would be with them is not [going] to be teaching them in-person material,” said Giaramita, adding they’re only going to be assisting them access the same online curriculum that all the other children will have. 

“When the child comes into the school, the curriculum they’re going to have is the same online curriculum as everyone else,” he said. “When they come into a school, it’s not as if they’re attending a class with a teacher who’s [going] to teach them content. That’s not the case.”

For parents who do not wish to send their kids to school — but don’t have reliable internet — the division will provide instructional materials in a paper or video format. Such parents may also qualify for a hotspot device, he added. 

Both divisions are set to begin the school year Sept. 8.

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.

Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.