Greenbrier County Education Association, Race Matters in Education speak on COVID-19 re-entry school plan

By Bobby Bordelon

Both the Greenbrier County Education Association and Race Matters In Education approached the Greenbrier County Board of Education on Tuesday, August 11, looking to improve safety for students before they return to school on the re-entry plan recently passed by the board.

GCEA Representative Allyson Carr gave a prepared statement from the organization with the board, calling for more preventative measures than the current plan has.

“We share Greenbrier County Schools grave concern for all students in this challenging time, especially those at high risk when not in school,” said Carr. “We urge the board to consider a model of instruction that does not, in an effort to protect our children, actually increase the risk for all. … The feedback we have received suggests the vast majority of members believe that the best scenario for both students and school personal is one that would allow for either 50 percent reduction in class size at all levels or complete remote instruction for now.”

The current re-entry plan offers two models for instruction based on the metrics at the county and state level. Decisions about offering on-campus school or allowing for 50 percent occupancy of our buildings will be based upon:

• the daily percent positive COVID lab test rate for the state.

• availability of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

• availability of adequate staffing.

• student attendance rates.

• numbers of COVID-like cases in Greenbrier County will also impact the decision-making process.

These guidelines will determine if schools comes to plan A, B, or C for learning:

• Plan A includes all schools staggered start by grade or remote learning

• Plan B includes either all schools operating at 50% capacity with modified school day or remote learning.

• Plan C consists of remote learning for all.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that over 97,000 children in the United States tested positive for the virus in the last two weeks of July and a 40 percent infection increase in just those two weeks. GCEA’s statement cites this new data and hopes the “Board of Education will consider new scientific evidence, as well as the Greenbrier County Education Association’s feedback, when implementing future plans.”

Recently, GCEA gathered the thoughts of its members, looking to get an idea of what the re-entry plan would look like in practice.

“Through recent meetings and a GCEA survey, we’ve identified several primary issues important to our members regarding the Greenbrier County School’s re-entry plan,” Carr said. “Also half of our survey respondents have children enrolled in Greenbrier County Schools, so when they express concern, they do so both as a parent and as educators.”

The survey indicated:

• 57 percent of respondents reported they or someone in their household is at increased risk for COVID 19 related illnesses due to age or underlying medical conditions.

• 71 percent do not believe that adequate social distancing is possible at their schools, with an additional approximate 16 percent who only believe social distancing is possible with a reduction in class size.

• 43.5 percent indicated the windows in their classrooms do not open and allow for fresh air.

• 78.8 think that all staff and students should be screened daily at school.

• 71.4 percent do not believe that the current plan calling for elementary school students to report five days a week under certain conditions can be implemented safely.

• 61.9 percent do not feel the transportation and busing presented in the re-entry plan are sufficient.

In addition to the concerns of school personnel, Race Matters in Education pointed to the problems the county faces with both returning to school physically and moving to virtual learning.

“I’m going to raise a couple of concerns of communities of color,” Young said. “[Some] specific issues related to the pandemic are … a disproportionate lack of access to distanced learning for children, … families, and communities of color, a lack of access to hot spots or equipment and training to actually use the internet, [and that] communities of color are two times as likely to be affected by COVID.”

Both speakers emphasized their respective organizations are looking to help the community and the board of education through uncertain times. At both the start and end of the statement, Carr also emphasized GCEA’s understanding of how difficult the board of education’s position is.

“We understand that the development of the re-entry plan has been a massive undertaking and we appreciate all the thought and time that went into its creation,” Carr said. “We are extremely concerned for the welfare of our students, their families, and our colleagues, a concern we know is shared by Greenbrier County schools’ administration and board of education members. … We do understand that this is a no win situation for anyone and that everyone is just trying to do their best.”

“We’re looking at issues like how we can be helpful in terms of tutoring and other services that should be essential in making sure every child has an equal opportunity for education,” Young said. “We [came to the board] today to say we want to be part of the solution. We will work with you again this year, we look forward to having continued conversations with your superintendent of schools and on a monthly basis, we’d like to report to the board.”

The Board of Education noted the feedback and plans to “work hard to do what is best for everyone.”

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In addition to COVID concerns, Young also highlighted the recent growth of Race Matters in Education as Greenbrier County reckons with the same issues as the entire United States following the murder of George Floyd by police.

“We’ve doubled in size. We had a rally recently in downtown Lewisburg – there were over 300 people,” Young said. “We are really happy to have a lot of young people who have joined Race Matters in Education. Across the nation, this is a special moment in time when looking at the issues of disparity that we weren’t aware of in the past. We have been concerned about the issue of discipline with children of color.”

Young highlighted an upcoming study across West Virginia looking into discipline disparities.

“The state department of education’s own data was presented to the legislature this year and a bill was passed effective March 1, in which there will be a study to look across the state of West Virginia to try to address some policy changes and ways in which we can do better in terms of administering equity in terms of discipline.”