More Parents Would Have the Option to Choose In-Person Instruction for Their Child Under the Superintendent’s Stage 4 Recommendation

Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) Superintendent Dr. Matthew Haas recommended to the School Board this evening that the school division begin expanding in-person instruction for all students. If approved by the School Board at their business meeting on February 11, this progression to Stage 4 of the division’s Return to School plan would take full effect on Monday, March 1.

If approved by the Board next week, this move would give more parents the ability to choose in-person instruction for their child. Currently, in Stage 3 of the Return to School plan, approximately 2,500 students, primarily in Pre-K through third grade, can attend school. Stage 4 would allow all parents to choose in-person instruction for their child regardless of the student’s grade level. Approximately 7,600 students would be eligible for in-person instruction, with nearly 6,000 other students receiving fully virtual instruction.

A move from Stage 3 to Stage 4 will require adequate planning and preparation time. Monday and Tuesday, February 22 and 23, would be asynchronous learning days for all students. On Wednesday and Thursday, February 24 and 25, schools will open to all elementary school students, including Pre-K. Also included on February 24 and 25 will be students in their middle or high school transition year, sixth- and ninth-grade students. Students in all other grades will begin in-person instruction on March 1.

In making his recommendation, Dr. Haas said, “I know I speak for all of our students and families when I offer our deepest gratitude to all of our school division’s educators and support staff. They have carried the day through their grit and creativity to meet the learning and well-being needs of our children through mostly virtual and some hybrid instruction. I thank this world-class team for what they have contributed during the most challenging school year we have faced in our careers. You have held our community together through your valiant efforts.”

The Superintendent said the most current health data, recent guidance from the state departments of education and health, and the counsel of more than 30 local physicians demonstrate that in person instruction can safely be expanded at this time.

Both of the COVID-19 virus transmission measures that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) applies to schools have been trending down in the county since January 14. The case incidence rate per 100,000 people, based upon a 14-day cumulative total, has dropped by more than 40 percent, from 557 to 314. The percent positive test rate since January 14 is 50 percent lower, having declined from 7.5 percent to 3.9 percent.

In a communication to the School Board and Dr. Haas, 34 local pediatricians said this week the CDC reported that “the preponderance of available evidence indicates that in-person instruction can be carried out safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing is maintained.” The doctors cited research in the medical journal Pediatrics that virus transmission in school districts that remained open was incredibly low throughout the pandemic.

“The work done by ACPS and the COVID Task Force is exceptional and clearly meets the standards set forth by all of our professional organizations in the use of nonpharmaceutical interventions to reduce the spread of COVID-19. At this point in the pandemic we have enough data to understand that, while COVID behaves differently than other viruses, the risk of severe illness in school-aged children is extremely low and not that dissimilar to what we deal with in children every year,” the doctors wrote.

Last week, the state department of education issued six guiding principles to all school divisions in Virginia for use when deciding whether to expand in-person instruction. They include support for in-person learning; prioritizing younger learners and those with disabilities or who are English learners; putting education first; focusing on prevention; consideration of community needs; and being flexible and innovative in the delivery of instruction.

“This guidance is consistent with the policies and operating practices that have been in place since the new school year began,” Haas said, referring to September 8, when schools first were open for some in-person instruction. “Based on the effectiveness of our mitigation strategies and our own in-school experiences, we understand why the health department advises us that schools are among the safest places in our community for protecting against the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

While the health data understandably receives a great deal of focus, the Superintendent noted it also is important to consider all of the state’s guiding principles. For example, the division’s youngest learners, students with disabilities, and English learners total 5,925 students, or 43 percent of all students in the division. In Stage 4, in-person instruction would expand for all of these students.

Despite the division’s distribution of hot spot devices to homes without sufficient Internet access for virtual learning, only 60 percent of respondents to a division survey reported that the access they have at home enables them to fully participate in synchronous, virtual learning.

An informal survey of 16 child care providers in the county revealed that, at the current time, they have only 67 days care slots available to children between the ages of 5 and 12. At one urban ring elementary school, only six percent of students are in licensed day care.

“It’s reasonable to assume that many of our families, without the adequate availability of affordable day care options, are requiring a parent to stay home to care for their child, often causing irreplaceable losses in family income,” Haas said. “It’s what the state guidance is referring to when it calls upon school divisions to consider community needs,” he added.

In a statement earlier this week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen. Safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”

Still, Haas pointed to the Blue Ridge Health District’s COVID-19 vaccination program and a companion clinic the health district conducted for school division employees this past weekend as helpful developments. The division said it is continuing to work closely with the health district to ensure that all employees who want a COVID-19 vaccine will be vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Our employees have been exceptional all year in enforcing our mitigation strategies and in registering these past few weeks for the vaccine,” Haas said. “We are going to continuing working with our teachers to ensure our schools remain safe as we expand in-person instruction. That includes working with our teachers to meet their needs whenever possible. Out of nearly 350 requests for ADA accommodations, we have been able to grant all but one,” the Superintendent noted.

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