Albemarle County teachers share safety concerns ahead of return to school

Updated: Jul. 9, 2020 at 10:19 PM EDT
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ALBEMARLE Co., Va. (WVIR) - At Thursday night’s Albemarle County School Board meeting, concerned teachers lined up in a virtual waiting room to express their doubts about an in-person return to school.

Teachers, bus drivers, parents, and healthcare workers were some of the people who shared their perspectives on the county’s return to school strategy.

“Our teachers are in fact superheroes, but they don’t actually have superpowers,” said Matthew Christensen. “They can still get sick. They still need to pay rent or mortgage, and they still need to pay to eat.”

Those superheroes lined up in a virtual waiting room that was so long each comment was limited to two minutes. Usually, public comments at Albemarle County School Board meetings can be up to three minutes.

“As of right now, I don’t feel safe, and I don’t feel my children are safe going into ACPS schools for face-to-face learning in the fall,” said Tim Klobuchar, a teacher at Monticello High School.

The number of teachers that spoke allowed a variety of worries to be shared. Kathryn Lowe shared her story, and worries about bringing the sickness home.

“I have a son who’s disabled. I spent the last 23 years of my life keeping him alive,” the Burley Middle School teacher said. “We have decided to send him to a group home to keep him away from me so that I don”t put his health at risk.”

Emily Mathon said the board needs to make sure it has its most vulnerable students in mind.

“It is a fact that COVID impacts black and brown people much more than white people,” Mathon said, mentioning she was speaking on behalf of an ACPS teacher. “So tell us how you’re going to protect those most at risk in this community.”

One frontline health worker, Danny Theodore, did say he thinks a return to the classroom in September would be best.

“Let’s look at what kids will miss if they don’t go back to school,” Theodore said. “Learning, obviously, they will miss that. Second: socialization. This is where kids learn how to socialize and interact with other people, and it takes a lot of practice and learning.”

But as teachers advocated for a virtual start, they also addressed concerns over the quality of education students would receive.

“We did what we were told and we did our best then, but virtual learning this fall will be very different and improved,” Mathon said. “We are already better prepared for what is coming because of what we did before.”

Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Haas did say the county will be surveying teachers starting Friday about the return to school options. The county’s Return to School Planning Guide can be viewed here.

Board member Judy Le indicated that the county should have surveyed staff earlier. She asked Assistant Superintendent for Organizational Development & Human Resource Leadership Clair Keiser if teachers would be forced to teach in-person, even if they request to teach virtually.

“Conceivably we could have more requests for teachers to teach virtually than we do student need,” Keiser said. “But that’s something that I think is probably premature right now to determine that.”

“I guess I feel like it would not be premature if we had spoken to more teachers in the planning process of this, and I find that a little bit disturbing to be honest,” Le responded.

Among the options proposed to the school board were in-person learning four days a week for elementary students and one or two days a week for secondary students. The proposals were based on evaluations of busing and transportation, as well as safety measures within school buildings.

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