BOE postpones vote on fall re-entry framework, opting to submit contingency plan to state for now

BUCKHANNON – Members of the Upshur County Board of Education met in a special session Tuesday at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School to hash out some questions and concerns they had about the proposed Upshur County Schools Re-Entry Framework for the 2020-2021 school year.

A plan for re-entry is due from each county school system by Thursday, July 30 at the West Virginia Department of Education.

However, although much discussion took place and there were many questions answered about the re-entry framework, it was not approved by the BOE during Tuesday’s special session. Instead, it will be addressed again, possibly for an official vote, at the next board meeting Aug. 11.

The current framework will be submitted to the state on Thursday with the idea that it has not been approved or voted upon by the BOE and is, at this point, contingent.

Dr. Jeffery Harvey, director of school safety and emergency preparedness, told BOE members he and his team had met and said there had been several revisions to the re-entry framework since the last BOE meeting that took place Tuesday, July 22.

In an overview, Harvey said the new framework had more specificity.

“We continue to operate under a three-tiered framework,” Harvey said. “The five days a week in the school building is the preferred option, and we have a virtual school option and a modified option that blends in-school and remote learning.”

Harvey said one of the main considerations is how the virus is affecting the county when choosing the option for re-entry.

“Checking and working with our local health department, our numbers are still not indicative of community spread; however, they do indicate the situation with COVID-19 is not under control as much as we would like it to be,” he explained.

Harvey said in looking at the numbers of students in each school, the committee was recommending Upshur County Schools open under a modified operation “whereby the elementary schools would be attending five days a week, and secondary schools (middle and high school) would open under a modified schedule where students would be divided into two groups.”

“Our next step after your approval would be to decide how the secondary students are split into those two groups,” Harvey reported. “This involves an alternating Wednesday when student groups would alternate attending on Wednesdays.”

Harvey said some recent studies he’s found through his research suggest children ages 10 and below “do not seem to contract or spread COVID-19 as readily as other age groups.”

“We feel that with the lack of movement in elementary schools [from classroom to classroom for various courses], we are feeling more comfortable with them attending five days,” Harvey said. “In middle and high schools, there is a large student body, and they move a lot during the day. This [proposed] option would cut the student body in half each day.”

Harvey said the proposed framework would “pod out” Buckhannon Academy Elementary School students since it has such a large population, essentially placing students in smaller groups.

BOE vice president Katie Loudin asked about the face coverings requirement in the document.

“There are some places in the document that say face coverings are required for all, and some places where it says face coverings are required for those age 9 and above,” she said.

Harvey said the group feels it is important to hammer out how the schools will deal with inconsistencies in those not wearing face coverings.

Loudin also pointed out that parents and staff need to know how school is going to look in the fall so they are able to make arrangements for necessary child care. She said she feels the proposed framework with students alternating on Wednesdays could be confusing. Loudin proposed using Wednesdays for the deep cleaning of the schools and simultaneously as a reset day to allow teachers to work on plans and grading as well as remote learning plans.

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus reminded everyone that school systems are still mandated to provide 180 days of educational instruction.

“We are mandated to 180 days of school instruction, and we cannot give an extra day of planning,” Stankus said. “We are still instructing when we are teaching remotely, and the students are learning remotely. If we take Wednesday off, the teachers would still be instructing students remotely. If you are in school or you are home, you are still receiving instruction. The state has been very clear on that.”

BOE member Kristi Wilkerson thanked Harvey and his team for working to put together the proposed framework for re-entry.

“You have answered some questions and really looked at the numbers,” Wilkerson said. “It is good to have that response to the concerns we voiced last Tuesday. My preference is that we start with remote learning for nine weeks. If that is not an option, I think we should have half-class sizes for nine weeks and see how that goes.”

Wilkerson said the primary goal is to educate students, but to do so safely.

“Our primary goal has to be the safety of our students and staff,” she said. “Then, we need to figure out how to educate them in that situation. I think we are still a little bit topsy-turvy on that point. We have an option to watch the states that are going back to the classrooms in August and see how that goes before we start on Sept. 8.”

Wilkerson said if a student or staff member contracts the virus, the BOE must be able to say, “We did everything possible to keep them safe.”

“I just want to make sure we are doing everything possible to keep them safe,” Wilkerson said. “This is a lot, and I don’t think there is a good option.”

BOE president Dr. Tammy Samples asked Stankus if there is a date by which the BOE needs to have a decision on their re-entry plan, and Stankus said that date is Thursday, July 30.

“We are obviously not ready to make the final decision,” Samples said. “That is not to discount the work or effort that went into these plans.”

Loudin said she, too, had lingering concerns about the framework.

“I just have concerns that we are not doing everything possible to keep our staff and our students safe,” Loudin said.

“Student and staff safety are always in the forefront,” Stankus replied.

Loudin said she did believe the BOE was closer to a decision this week than it was at the July 22 meeting.

“We are closer [to making a decision] than we were last week,” Loudin said.

Stankus suggested delaying the actual vote until the Aug. 11 meeting.

“If it’s okay with the board, we can submit our plan and say we haven’t voted on it or made a final decision,” Stankus said. “We can say they are our contingent plans and are subject to change. We have other logistics to work out such as food service. We have another meeting on Aug. 11.”

Jody Johnson, Upshur County Schools Director of Federal Programs, shared that as of July 27, 2020, 915 students had signed up for virtual learning, including 40 students who are new to Upshur County Schools.

Approximately 21 percent to 31 percent of students in each Upshur County School have selected the virtual learning system, with the top schools being Tennerton and Hodgesville Elementary Schools at 30 percent and Union Elementary School at 31 percent.

Following the discussion, Loudin said she felt that the board had made progress, adding that she would love to see the public provided with a plan so families and teachers could make plans for child care for the upcoming year.

Also, during Tuesday’s special session, BOE members heard from Ann Osburn of the Upshur County Education Association. Osburn asked BOE members to sign a resolution that would be presented asking for $175 billion in funding to help schools cover the cost of COVID-19-related issues. Osburn said the resolution was authorized by the West Virginia Education Association.

“If you sign this resolution, it will be taken to the [West Virginia] Legislature asking them to provide the monies to deal with COVID-19 issues,” Osburn explained, adding that as of this point, there are 20 other West Virginia BOEs who have signed the resolution.

Samples said BOE members would look through the resolution and check with their representative with the West Virginia School Board Association for guidance.

“Using his guidance, we will make a decision and put this up for a vote at our next board meeting,” Samples said.

BOE members voted unanimously to approve the personnel changes as presented which mostly contained the employment of extracurricular mentors, teachers, counselors and administrators at Upshur County Schools for the upcoming school year.

The next meeting of the Upshur County BOE is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.

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