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Clashing colors: Inside Upshur County’s decision to switch to remote learning through Jan. 4, 2021

BUCKHANNON – A discussion at Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting about school map colors, the number of active COVID-19 cases in the county, student absenteeism and a shortage of substitute teachers led to the decision to switch to complete remote learning in Upshur County Schools until Jan. 4, 2021.

“I’m just going to say it: The DHHR map is worthless,” BOE Vice President Katie Loudin said. “I think the people in this room have a much better idea of what is happening in our county. I am very, very concerned that our numbers are going up and that the virus is going to get worse. I think we need to decide what is best for our county.”

BOE members voted unanimously to switch to remote learning in Upshur County Schools beginning immediately through Jan. 4, 2021.

The motion to go fully remote included a provision enabling students who are categorized as special needs and those who attend the Fred Eberle Technical Center to still attend in-person instruction. Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus said the provision will allow the system to run buses and pick up special needs and FETC students.

BOE member Pat Long made the motion to switch to remote learning, which was seconded by BOE member Kristi Wilkerson, and each BOE member voted in favor of the change.

Reasons for the decision were enumerated during the meeting, including the fact that currently, two Upshur County Schools – Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Buckhannon-Upshur High School – started the week with remote learning due to a shortage teachers and a lack of available substitutes.

The West Virginia Department of Education map, which has been tweaked more than a dozen times, classifies Upshur County as yellow despite an infection rate well into the red zone. (Read more about this week’s map here.)

In addition, the Saturday Education Map, normally released on Saturday at 5 p.m., was delayed for a number of hours, which left parents, students, teachers and staff waiting until Sunday to find out if there would even be in-person instruction in the county.

Before that, schools in Upshur County were closed to in-person instruction for five weeks, with students partaking in remote learning for two reasons: (1) because Upshur County was red or orange on the DHHR map and (2) a COVID-19 outbreak in the Upshur County Schools Transportation Department forced schools to transition to remote learning because not enough bus drivers were able to transport students to and from in-person instruction.

Loudin said remote learning is improving.

“Our teachers have adapted really well. I think if we gave them the space to do it very well, it would go well,” Loudin said.

She also pointed out that some teachers only have three students in their in-person classes this week.

“Where are our resources going to if we have three students in class, and the teacher is putting together remote learning lessons and tending to students online and cleaning? We are asking them to do an impossible job this year, and I think if we said, ‘remote learning to January’ they could do a great job,” Loudin said.

She said she believes the people in the room have a much better handle on the spread of disease in Upshur County than someone located elsewhere in the state.

“That is where my concern is,” Loudin said. “I think that we need to decide what is best for Upshur County.”

Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Dr. Jeffery Harvey agreed with Loudin.

“We have tried to keep up our relationship with the local health department because they are the ones who are collecting the data for Upshur County,” Harvey said. “I think the local folks who are tracking cases in Upshur County know what is going on in Upshur County.”

Loudin said the weekend DHHR maps are forcing community members – including teachers, transportation and administrators – to work all day on Sunday to try and figure out if school can be blended/in-person for the upcoming week. She said she feels Upshur County health and education officials can better predict whether there should be in-person school, rather than depend on a map with completely outdated numbers.

“Our parents are stressed out,” Loudin said. “If we could make a decision earlier in the week, people could figure out their work schedules. This model is not fair to our students or our teachers. I want to apologize for the stress this is causing.”

Loudin said the decision to move to remote learning in Upshur County is not a setting a precedent, adding that two other West Virginia counties have already elected to go to remote learning even though their counties were yellow and gold.

“I am tired of getting stressed-out emails from teachers and parents. Everyone is tired, and then they have to wonder if the county will be red or yellow. It’s too much,” Loudin said.

Harvey said he has put a lot of thought into the weekly model.

“I think the problem with it is the timing,” Harvey said. “Now that seems to be getting later and later. I think there are some systemic issues there about how the information is shared. I applaud the efforts to make it as accurate as possible, but I do think there is a cut-off time where that accuracy is offset by the train wreck you cause when planning needs to occur.”

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples suggested unions such as AFT and WVEA might press to change the day of decision to possibly Wednesday based on Monday’s map numbers.

“Somebody has to have a better platform for having this conversation, rather than an individual school board,” Samples said.

Loudin said she looked at the calendar, and Upshur students were only scheduled to be in the classroom about six more days between now and the end of the year due to holidays, the blended model and the additional shutdown ordered by the governor.

“I think giving the teachers three weeks to reset after Thanksgiving and put the remote lessons into place will allow teachers to check on students while staying safe,” Loudin said. “From what I understand, the census in the schools this week is very low, probably because parents are worried about the infection rate.”

BOE member Kristi Wilkerson said she thinks as BOE members, they need to be more proactive.

“It just seems like we need to err on the side of being cautious and being safer,” Wilkerson said. “To say that we know what is happening in Upshur – that is true. We need to be able to say that we believe this is the safest course of action.”

Samples asked if a teacher would be able to teach remotely if they are quarantined, and Stankus said yes.

“We are still paying them, and they are using the COVID leave, so yes,” Stankus answered. She also said that students at Fred Eberle have been attending school to get in their hours, and students with IEPs have been going to school four days a week and could continue to be bused to school even if remote learning was in place.

“We are legally bound to do that,” Stankus said.

Also, during Tuesday’s BOE meeting, several teachers, students, staff members and volunteers were recognized as Upshur Stars. Stay tuned to My Buckhannon to read about those rewards as well as other business during the meeting.

The next Upshur County BOE meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8 at Union Elementary School.

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