While some Charlottesville parents praised Charlottesville City Schools for its survey — or intent form for the proposed January  reopening plans —some had mixed feelings about a major question. 

They had to choose whether to send their children physically to school in January. If they decide to stay virtual, they have to stick to their decision for the remainder of the year.

Jernika Morton, whose daughter attends a virtual learning center at Christ Episcopal Church downtown that serves residents in the Prospect neighborhood, said there should’ve been more adjustability in case something happens in between January and June.

“I think there should be more flexibility just in case you have to pull them out of it because of an emergency situation or something,” Morton said.

Morton said it would be beneficial to have in-person learning as long as they follow COVID-19 measures. She said she’d like her child to attend the city schools’ in-person learning environment because it would be better for her to get help with classwork.

“I think the questions were OK — pretty straightforward. I don’t think it was missing anything,” Morton said. “The deadline was pretty reasonable.” 

Beth Ike, whose child attends a learning pod, shares the same sentiment about choosing in-person or staying virtual.

Ike said she understands that the division is in a tough position to not be able to include more details in the intent form, but she would’ve liked to have known more about what to expect should there be positive cases in Charlottesville.

“It was a very binary choice,” Ike said.

Ike, who chose to keep her child in a virtual learning environment, added she questions the division’s approach of asking parents to make a firm decision because she wonders what the division would do if she can no longer assist her child with virtual learning at home. She wonders if she would be able to enroll her child to in-person instruction.

In the last School Board meeting, board members discussed case-by-case situations when helping families, but hopefully they look at each case, Ike explained.

“I’ve been vocal, and I’ll continue to be because I think as complicated as this situation is — and as difficult a time, as I understand, lots of families are having and lots of children are having with an [all-virtual] learning environment — I think to consider returning when cases are rising at the rate they are both nationally and in Virginia feels incredibility foolish,” she said.

“When the conversation first started about a January return, Charlottesville numbers continued to look quite good, but I feel like the national picture when our conversation started, maybe wasn’t as bad. We knew we were going into colder months. We knew there was going to be a cold/flu season, which would make everything harder.”

Ike said she’s asking for a March reopening.

“I know that means we will have been out of the majority of the year, or at least half of the year by then. I feel like [going] to try to return in the face of the virus rates going up, but also in the face of colder months when we have to be inside more, I think if we were to wait until March, there’s a chance we could be outside more and really keep risks down.”

Learning pods are designed to allow children to learn in person in small groups as a skilled adult or parent assists them with their scheduled daily virtual learning. The children will be learning in groups, with the curriculum provided by the Charlottesville City Schools. Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Collectbritain Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Collectbritain

It was also difficult for Kristin Sancken, a Greenbrier Elementary School parent whose daughter also attends a learning pod, to make a decision.

“The school is doing the best that they can, but it feels like we don’t have all the information. And so we’re trying to do the best we can with what we have,” Sancken said.

“I think the fact that the survey was a binding survey that the decision you made had to be the decision you stuck with until June added a lot of pressure and anxiety because a lot could change between now and June. So, having to make a decision without knowing how things are [going to go] in the next seven months felt hard.”

But Stephen Turner said he had no strong feelings about the intent form, adding that the deadline was fair.

“The form itself was well-written and informative. The one kind of tricky thing is, it’s kinda hard to know what January is gonna look like. The intent form is binding. It kind of makes sense to me,” he said.

“That makes a lot of sense because if you plan for 50% of students to be … in person and 50% to be virtual and then you’ve got half of those people [deciding] to come back, so you’ve got now 75% of the people want to be in person. That’s a staffing problem for sure.”

Offered in English and five other languages, the survey was distributed both online and in print. In an effort to make the process equitable, the division said it distributed the survey with meals and in neighborhood walkthroughs.

Parents also can call (434) 228-1073 to complete the survey over the phone, said Beth Cheuk, a spokeswoman for the city schools. “Other options listed on the form include returning the paper to the meal delivery site, mailing or returning the form to a school or Central Office, texting a clear picture of the form to (434) 953-1802,” Cheuk said. Cheuk also said that the significant time it takes to plan a schedule , rooster classes and make a staffing plan requires that the division get firm commitments about preferences from families.

“We cannot do further planning without knowing how many students will return to in-person instruction,” she said.

“If we open the door to widespread changes of families’ plans, we will start a continual cycle of planning and family shifting. We have heard from other school divisions that these shifts can bring the process to a breaking point.

We will always work with individual families who have a pressing need, but on the whole, but we need to start making final plans for the last half of the school year.”

Cheuk said if the School Board approves the in-person option, the division is hoping to accommodate all who request it.

“Principals have run the numbers at varying percentages to plan accordingly. We are presently asking staff to complete a preference form to help plan for staffing,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. Nathan Walton, executive director of Abundant Life Ministries, said there are five rooms at the Christ Episcopal site, housing 24 children and 14 children are at Buford. No positive COVID-19 cases have been reported at the virtual learning centers since school began Sept. 8. Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Collectbritain Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Collectbritain

Joyce Taylor, whose grandchildren attend the learning center at the Christ Episcopal Church, said the city schools should stick to virtual learning for the rest of the year and then maybe try for in-person instruction next fall.

“They might be taking a risk going back to school with this COVID expanding,” she said, adding that she believes the children would be OK staying at home.

Taylor said the city schools are moving too fast with their school reopening plans. She does not feel safe for her grandchildren to be back in school this year.

She said she’s had a great experience with the Christ Episcopal Church learning center.

“I’m glad that they took the time with the kids who really need assistance. It’s been wonderful,” she said.

She’s had a positive experience with virtual learning, she said, as long as the children know what to do.

“Some of the subjects are hard that they don’t really understand, but they do the best they can,” she said.

Billy Jean Louis joined Collectbritain 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.