Teachers, parents weigh in as Charlottesville City Schools plan for fall

On Monday, the Charlottesville School Board met to discuss the updated learning plan for the fall. The working plan includes a second draft of attendance options that offers each student the choice between online-only education and a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. The hybrid option for K-6 students includes four days of in-person classes, while the hybrid option for grades 7-12 includes two in-person days. According to schools spokesperson Beth Cheuk, these plans are designed to accommodate 100% attendance, if every student chose the hybrid option.

At the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Kim Powell presented the health precautions the school system is planning; a mask or face shield requirement for everyone in the building; class sizes and layouts designed to enable social distancing; upgraded ventilation systems; new disinfecting equipment; and new cleaning protocols.

Additionally, Cheuk went over the results of a survey of parents that informed the creation of the current plan.

Many staff members said they felt their voices have not been heard throughout the process. At the meeting, Shannon Gillikin, a kindergarten teacher at Jackson-Via Elementary School, read an open letter, signed by more than 150 staff members, to Superintendent Rosa Atkins and the School Board. The letter voiced the safety concerns of staff and asked Atkins and the board to announce and plan for a virtual opening rather than a face-to-face one. The letter also requested that there be a metric for when it is considered safe to return to schools and included questions regarding what an in-person opening would look like in terms of health precautions, paid leave and hazard pay for staff.

Atkins said there will be a Q&A page on the CCS website with answers to the questions presented in the letter. Additionally, staff will be surveyed for their input and parents will be surveyed again, given the updated plan. School Board members also encouraged the community to give input via email to schoolboard@.

The School Board postponed their vote on the fall plans to later this month, either on  July 23 or 30.

A push for online-only instruction

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 64,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. on Thursday — more than six times the number of daily new cases nationally when Gov. Ralph Northam in March ordered Virginia’s K-12 schools to close.. The Thomas Jefferson Health District reported 65 new cases on July 4, the highest rate yet of daily new cases in the district.

Many CCS staff members said they felt it is too early to resume any in-person instruction and fear for their safety and the safety of their students.

Tess Krovetz, a second-grade teacher at Jackson-Via, was one of the organizers of the open letter requesting an online-only opening. Krovetz said to Charlottesville Tomorrow that the meeting satisfactorily addressed some of her concerns.

“The idea of going back to school and not having a mask requirement for everyone who enters the building, as much as possible, made me pretty uncertain about safety. So that, I think, is a big question they got answered,” Krovetz said. Additionally, Krovetz expressed satisfaction with the school administration’s commitment to surveying staff and to further surveying parents for input.

However, she said there should be further clarity around the logistics of an in-person school day before an informed decision can be made on how to reopen.

“I think both staff and parents need to really have a full picture of what in-person learning would look like. There’s a lot of moving parts to a successful school day,” she said, expressing that the plan should specify these logistics before the School Board votes on it.

Krovetz emphasized that if the board decides some level of face-to-face learning is the right step, she and other teachers who signed the letter will be there to work in-person; however, they still believe that planning for a virtual opening is the best option.

She explained that those who signed the letter want to use the remaining time before the school year starts to find a way to improve the quality of virtual education and work with the community and families to address concerns of childcare for children who aren’t school age and to find ways to manage children’s learning schedules. She noted that even if schools open with some face-to-face learning, a switch to online-only might become necessary later in the semester and it will be important to have a thorough plan in place to address all these concerns.

The case for in-person learning

While some are advocating for an online-only opening, to others, the option of face-to-face education is important.

“I was very happy to see that the administration had the four-day option,” said Chris Meyer, a Jackson-Via parent who helped organize an open letter written by a group of parents asking for five days of in-person instruction each week.

“I think a lot of people who signed the letter recognize their children did not grow educationally or have the social and emotional development during this last spring of online sessions,” said Meyer. “I think they had read the most recent science and guidance provided by the American Association of Pediatricians, which stated that, especially for younger elementary school children, that they should be in school as much as possible.”

The Academy of American of Pediatrics guidance advocates for flexible opening policies that “start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” and discusses the negative educational and social consequences — including health risks — of social isolation. The guidance notes that time away from school puts students at increased risk from sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation and affects food security and physical activity. Additionally, research shows learning loss and widening achievement gaps following schools’ closures this spring.

“No parent wants to put kids or the teachers in a risky situation. But we must accept that life with COVID is not zero-risk, and a cost/benefit analysis is needed to decide at any moment what’s the best option,” Donna Chen, a Venable Elementary School parent who signed the letter supporting a five-day option, said in an email.

She expressed a desire for flexibility on the part of the school district. “I don’t support a one-size-fits-all solution for all ages, nor all teachers, nor all families. I hope CCS is committed to giving families and teachers options and considers expert advice.”

Weighing concerns

School Board member Jennifer McKeever said that many parents who say their kids need to be back in school are listing two main reasons: child care and quality of education.

“I do not see the role of the schools as a child care provider. I see the role of the schools as a place to learn and provide academic instruction,” she said.

McKeever said she sees the division focusing its energy on figuring out how in-person learning can be done safely and how remote instruction can be better-quality than it was in the spring.

 “In my opinion, our school division is working really hard on ensuring a better model for the delivery of instruction remotely, given that everything is up in the air and no matter the plans that we make, everything can go awry,” she said.

Additionally, McKeever said the School Board shared one of the concerns voiced by staff in the open letter.

“Before we make a decision, I know that many of us on the board want to have a metric with which we can determine whether it’s safe or not to go back to school in-person,” she said. 

McKeever said they would have a lot of questions for the medical community, the health department, and pediatricians to make sense of the contradictions between the health guidance school systems have received and guidance issued to other sectors.

“There’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of it is conflicting,” she said.

For some parents, the risk of the virus outweighs the challenges of online-only learning, but concerns about how their children will succeed with online learning remain unanswered.

Khalesha Powell, a mother of six CHS students, plans to choose the online-only learning option for her children this fall. She discussed the increased risk of COVID-19 for her 6-month old and her 7-year-old with asthma, as well as her doubts about how safety measures like mask-wearing will work in practice.

She specifically noted that one of her second-graders who has difficulty sitting still and probably wouldn’t wear a mask. She anticipates this might be the case for many other students as well. 

“What happens when a kid won’t wear a mask? Would they call the parents each time to come pick up their kid?” she asked.

“Online only is safer,” she concluded.

However, Powell worries that online learning won’t give her children the same quality of education. She said that her other second-grader and her ninth grader need to be in front of the teacher to learn effectively, and she worries that they will have a difficult time staying focused remotely.

When asked how her children could be best supported in online learning, she said that the schools should redirect funding to local community centers in lower-income areas, like the South First Street Community Center, where children in her neighborhood can access tutoring and a learning space with faster internet than many have in their homes.

Powell also said that teachers should monitor their students’ progress and regularly communicate with parents. She emphasized that the responsibility to reach out and check in about issues like whether a student is completing their work each day should not fall on parents.