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Next Monday, March 8, Charlottesville City Schools’ kindergarten through sixth-grade students will return to learn inside their school buildings. For many students, it will be the first time inside a physical classroom since Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools statewide in March 2020 to stem the spread of the coronavirus. While most middle and high school students will continue virtual learning for the time being, a small cohort will also go back to class in person, as school administrators, teachers and students prepare for the eventual return to school by prioritizing safety, academic advancement and equitable access to education for all young people.
During the coronavirus pandemic, 4,529 CCS students and teachers engaged in fully remote instruction, a process that has been admittedly tough for many teachers and students.
“I believe that not everyone does the best with virtual learning; some kids don’t work well in this environment,” said Iya Seggan, 16, a Charlottesville High School junior, and creative writing coordinator of teen-led advocacy group Central VA Activists.
The group’s goal, according to Seggan, is to educate their peers at CHS and other area schools on topics like racism and the daily lived experiences of people of color, and to offer a supportive hub for teens of color and their allies. Seggan – an ambitious young woman who plans to attend Virginia State University, earn a postdoctoral degree and become a professor of African Studies, Women’s Studies or Philosophy – said the virtual learning struggle is a personal one.
“It’s hard for me to turn in my work more often, instead of how it would have been in if I was in school. My grades have suffered some because of that. I have less time to do my work, in a sense.”
Even before the pandemic, millions of K-12 public school students in the United States were affected negatively by the digital divide, defined as “the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who do not,” in a 2018 study by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. In Virginia, more than 200,000 K-12 students do not have reliable internet access via a broadband subscription, according to a September 2020 report conducted by the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia.
The same report found that 173,000 of the state’s K-12 students don’t own a laptop or desktop computer, and “Black and Latinx students are twice as likely as white students not to have a computer in the home.” These disparities can contribute to negative educational outcomes for students; Charlottesville City Schools leaders say they continue stepping up their efforts to close the digital divide, from providing pupils with Chromebook laptops, to individual interventions with families who need extra digital support.
“We worked really hard to ensure that students had access to devices, and access to [the] internet and Wi-Fi,” said Katina Otey, the school district’s chief academic officer.
Otey said the district organized mass Chromebook distribution events at each of its schools, and established drop-off points in area neighborhoods, including Westhaven, the city’s biggest, oldest public housing community.
Earlier in the pandemic, the school district took steps to ensure students’ basic needs were met, said Denise Johnson, Charlottesville City Schools supervisor of equity and inclusion.
“We were doing meal distribution, supply and hygiene drives, just to make sure our families have what they need to survive,” she said.
Additionally, Johnson said the district distributed internet hotspots to families who needed them and partnered with Comcast to make an affordable “essentials” internet package available to families at a reduced cost.
Otey, who joined the district in June and was previously director of elementary school leadership in Chesterfield Public Schools, notes that, as of Feb. 23, the school district’s director of technology received no new requests from parents for access or technology needs.
“So we are in a good place where the kids are able to engage in virtual instruction, and have everything they need, technology-wise,” Otey said
Seggan will be one of a small group of high school students who will return to their classrooms in March; Otey said the district worked with principles, parents, students, and teachers to determine which students needed the additional, in-person academic support (such as students with learning disabilities, students who speak English as a second language and students who have struggled with their attendance or grades while learning remotely). All city schools will have decreased class sizes and follow enhanced safety protocols, Otey said, and are equipped with cleaning materials and safety supplies to keep students and staff safe. A “large majority” of the district’s teachers have also been vaccinated, Otey adds.
“There is still a conversation [to be had] about education equity and health equity,” Johnson said of the schools’ physical reopening. “We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, so we understand that families have to make choices on how to keep their families safe. Many of our students, their parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and that impacts the decisions their household makes. … No matter what choice they make, we want to ensure that all families have equitable access to education.”
Virtual learning hasn’t been tough just for students; teachers also feel the strain.
“It’s been stressful, to say the least,” admits Charlottesville High School special education teacher Pam Brown. “I am not the most computer literate person, but I’ve had to become more computer literate than I ever wanted to be,” she adds with a chuckle. “But what it comes down to is, you have to be flexible, you have to be creative, and you have to connect with your students the best you can.”
Tim Johnson, a history teacher at CHS who co-teaches a government class with Brown, agrees.
“We’re being super proactive about reaching out to kids. It’s a lot easier [for students] to hide in the weeds with virtual learning. A lot of times, kids aren’t [speaking up] in class, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning or doing the work. So we have to be flexible. … We invite [students] to office hours, invite them to talk for 15 or 20 minutes; you can take a lot of weight off of them just by talking with them one on one, letting them know that you care.”
Brown added, “Being virtual, we had to work even harder to build relationships with students, but we did that by inviting them to stay on Zoom after class, just to chat about whatever they’re interested in, video games or shows, or sneakers. Or, if we see a student not engaging in class or notice their grade slipping, we’d pull up a Zoom break-out room and just ask them one-on-one, ‘What’s up with you? Do you want to talk, or can I help you with something?’”
Brown and Johnson say they feel the district has done a great job of including teachers in the back-to-school planning process; Brown serves on the district’s COVID committee, which guided the return to classroom instruction.
“First off, we were extremely pleased to have a teacher’s voice involved,” said Brown. “A lot of places aren’t consulting teachers on how to return to learn, considering we’re the front lines.” The committee comprised “administrators, parents, teachers” who worked together to craft the plan and present it to the school board for adoption last December. Brown also asked her students what they thought of the transition plan and shared their feedback with the committee.
A successful transition back to school will require the area’s entire educational community –students, parents and families, advocates, teachers, school staff, and administrators – to continue cooperating and collaborating, Brown and Johnson believe.
“It will take being caring, being flexible, being compassionate and being understanding,” Brown said.