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West Virginia Board of Education swears to re-open schools safely

CHARLESTON — As the Sept. 8 date for schools across West Virginia to start up after closing for the coronavirus pandemic, the West Virginia Board of Education Wednesday stated schools will not reopen unless it is safe.

The board of education met Wednesday for its monthly meeting at the Department of Education offices in Charleston. The meeting was closed to the public due to social distancing guidelines, though the meeting was streamed online.

Miller Hall, the new president of the board, presided over his first meeting Wednesday. Hall gave a statement on behalf of the board regarding the Sept. 8 start date for public and private schools.

“This board will rely on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and the state coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, to determine the metrics that will guide us into re-entry into school,” Hall said. “As a board, we support (Gov. Jim Justice) to ensure that all counties that are deemed safe by DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources) and health officials and we will start with in-person school and learning.”

County boards of education are required to submit plans for reopening by Friday and plans must include a five-day in-person learning plan, a blended learning plan and an all-virtual plan. County school systems also are required to show their plans for use of face masks, limiting the number of students in a classroom and distancing those students and controlling hallway traffic and other areas where people can congregate.

Last week, Justice and state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch announced the creation of a color-coded system and map to help county school leaders, teachers and school service personnel and parents determine when to switch from in-person learning, hybrid learning, or virtual learning depending on the increase of virus cases in a county.

Department of Education officials said that metric could be available as soon as the end of this week and updated twice a week after that based possibly on a seven-day average number of cases. Any closure would likely be for three-week periods allowing for reopening when cases go below a certain number.

“We have partnerships, the governor and his staff, the board of education and state superintendent of schools, and we are working together,” Hall said. “We’re not just saying go back to school just for the sake of it. We’re going to look at the data, and data is going to drive our decisions.”

Hall said the Department of Education received more than 60,000 responses to a survey over the summer seeking input on how counties should reopen in the fall. While the results of that survey have not been released, Hall said while they’ve received comments opposing reopening, including comments accusing school leaders of signing their death warrants, there are also people who support reopening the schools.

“The flip side of that coin is someone saying, ‘my son or my daughter is not getting a good education’ and they’d like to see them go back to school in-person,” Hall said. “We have student support, special education and mental health as some of the most pressing concerns. There is a flip side and we have to weigh all of that. What I’m saying is we will weigh it and we will do what is right through our data.”

Burch, recently selected as the new superintendent, said the department has frequently met with stakeholder groups, including the West Virginia School Board Association, the West Virginia Education Association, the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

“We spent about an hour and a half with (the West Virginia School Board Association) and it was a very in-depth conversation with very good questions, very thoughtful questions about what it means for their own districts and how to tackle these things,” Burch said. “We have done forums with WVEA and AFT. They continue to bring ideas to us of concerns. We keep those running lists and take them very seriously. There has not been a concern brought to us that isn’t either in the current guidance or isn’t in the process of trying to figure out if it’s in the current guidance.”

Burch said schools will look different, with some parents choosing virtual learning. This would make schools less crowded and cut down on possible infection spread in schools. Unlike the spring when schools had to quickly throw together virtual learning plans, schools are far better prepared to implement online learning when necessary.

County school systems were shut down on March 13 by Justice days before the state reported its first positive coronavirus case and more than a week before Justice ordered people to stay at home and closed all non-essential businesses. During the remainder of the last school year, teachers either sent lessons home to students, attempted virtual lessons and helped send food to students and their families.

Hall said school officials are better prepared this time around, but with outbreaks coming and going across the state, school opening would continue to be a moving target. Hall said it was important for teachers and parents to be flexible.

“We are working under circumstances that we have never experienced before to prepare for the school year,” Hall said. “Will this be the new normal? It might. It’s something we’re working on. We’ve worked diligently, we’ve worked tirelessly each and every day. We’re not going to please everybody, but we’re going to come up with a plan for what we think is best for our young people. It’s not a responsibility any of us take lightly.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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