By Lyra Bordelon
An emergency meeting of the Greenbrier County Board of Education led to wrestling with the new guidance from the West Virginia Department of Education’s return to school plan on Tuesday, January 5.
“The governor’s statements seem to be along the lines of recommendations, but from the Department of Education [recommendation] wasn’t the intention,” Bryant told the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force during the meeting. “… It is the new path we will follow, so we are somewhat trying to navigate these waters right now, but Clay Burch is our superintendent and we will follow his guidance.”
From Jan. 4, 2021, through Jan. 15, 2021, counties will move to remote learning, and educators will use this two-week period to prepare for the return to in-person instruction. Families have the option to keep their children in virtual learning, regardless of changes to in-person instruction. In a recent press briefing, Governor Jim Justice explained why the administration is looking to resume in-person classes.
“We have got to get our kids back in school,” said Justice. “During 2020 we learned that COVID-19 transmission rates in our schools during the first semester was 0.02 percent among students and 0.3 percent among staff. Our schools are safe when guidelines are followed.”
“We also learned, when we switched learning modes to virtual learning, the outcomes are not good,” Justice explained. “One-third of our students are receiving failing grades in at least one of their core classes. The virtual learning models do not work for many students without consistent, live engagement from a teacher. … Also the DHHR reports that there is a reduction in child protective services referrals by an average of 50 to 54 percent per month. We’ve got a bunch of kids that are out there, really suffering. So we must get back in school.”
Joining the Board of Education on the virtual meeting were a large number of parents and teachers, many with questions in the chat. Board of Education President Jeanie Wyatt noted that although the board couldn’t answer questions in that format, many of these questions are still uncertain for the board as well.
“I know that many of you listening in to the virtual meeting have questions,” Wyatt said. “The board meeting is not open to that so we will not be answering questions … I’m sorry we can’t answer all of your questions at this time, but I’m asking each and every one of you to please be patient with us. We were blindsided by this, the same as all of you. The board is going to work through it, do what we can, see what we can do and what we can’t do. I just ask for your patience.”
One important note is the guidance from the Department of Education specifies that “there is no provision for absences due to COVID or quarantine” and employees would have to use personal or sick days, or unpaid leave in order to quarantine. This is as a result of the expiring CARES Act benefits that were not renewed by Congress. However, this could be reconsidered by the county, with the presentation noting directly after that “Greenbrier County may provide some local leave for COVID or quarantine provided the employee has followed all mitigation guidance and the contact is a result of workplace exposure.”
The notes from the Department of Education’s powerpoint outline the return to school:
• Remote learning will continue into the weeks of January 4 and January 11.
• All prekindergarden through eighth grade students will return to in-person learning on January 19, 2021, regardless of the Department of Health and Human Resources color map. There will be no more WVDE Saturday map.
• High schools will return to in-person learning on January 19, 2021, based on the DHHR color map. These students will resume in-person unless the map is red, with the superintendent deciding on the return date.
• Families may continue to choose remote learning or West Virginia Virtual. Applications for this program will remain open through January 15. “Please be flexible with families who want to move to full remote or return from full remote.”
• After school in-person may resume on the 19th. Virtual afterschool will continue January 4 to 15.
• The five day meal boxes will be distributed on Wednesdays for in-person learners at each of Greenbrier County’s 13 schools. Remote learner five day meal boxes will be available at secondary schools on Wednesdays, with pick up times set between 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
• During this time, all staff report and work in isolation to provide remote instruction and prepare for the return to school.
• Winter sports are delayed until March 1. Practices, not games, may begin on this date.
• “No word yet” on spring sports.
Beyond this, the presentation also spelled out some of the mitigation strategies that will be in place:
• “Data shows that schools are the safest places for our children and are safe for staff.”
• “Masks will be worn at all times for staff and students, prekindergarden to grade 12.”
• “Hand washing and hand sanitation is critical.”
• “Disinfecting and cleaning will continue.”
• “Social distancing where possible – six feet no longer a requirement.”
• “No large gatherings.”
• “Contract tracing will continue.”
• “Schools or classrooms may be closed for contact tracing or staffing issues. Boards of education should not close entire counties.”
“We will do our very, very best to make it work,” Bryant said. “… It is important to know that this was given to us by the Department of Ed and this is not a suggestion or a recommendation, this is the guidelines of what we will do.”