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A group of parents and community members gathers in the Union Elementary School gym during a brief suspension of Tuesday's board of education meeting due to repeated audience interruptions.
A group of parents and community members gathers in the Union Elementary School gym during a brief suspension of Tuesday's board of education meeting due to repeated audience interruptions.

Protests cause brief interruption of Upshur County Board of Education meeting Tuesday

BUCKHANNON – Repeated outbursts made by audience members at Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting prompted BOE President Dr. Tammy J. Samples to briefly suspend the meeting.

The interruption occurred during a discussion about the Upshur County Schools Re-Entry Plan. Board members left the gymnasium at Union Elementary School and returned a short time later after a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the school.

Before the disruption, several community members spoke about their desire to have students return to in-person instruction. The board had voted at their regular meeting on Nov. 17, 2020 to move to remote learning for the remainder of the calendar year due to the number active COVID-19 cases in the county, high rates of student absenteeism and a shortage of substitute teachers.

Just this week, several other area counties have followed suit, including Monongalia, Marion, Harrison and Kanawha, which have all gone fully remote effective immediately despite their map color.

A group of parents who disagree with the BOE’s action gathered outside of Union Elementary School, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, and some carried signs asking for BOE members to let students return to in-person learning. At least one sign advocated for students to be in the classroom five days a week.

Upshur, like many other counties in West Virginia, uses a blended model of in-person and remote learning which has students in school two days per week to allow for social distancing and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, the delegations presented their views to BOE members. But as the meeting progressed, outbursts from the audience continued even as Samples called for order several times.

As the meeting moved to a discussion about the possible ‘reinstatement of the approved Upshur County Schools Re-Entry Plan, effective January 4, 2021,’ board member Pat Long said he was concerned about active COVID-19 cases picking up steam in the area.

“Because of that, I am wondering if we should not stagger our start time from January 4 to January 11,” Long said.

Long attended Tuesday’s meeting virtually.

Members of the audience interrupted the board’s discussion, and Samples asked them to come to order and added, “If you cannot keep your comments down, you will have to leave.”

Long continued, saying he felt the school system needed to allow for time to analyze the number of new cases following the holidays. Gov. Jim Justice ordered similar action statewide the week after Thanksgiving.

Dr. Jeffery Harvey, Upshur County School Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said the turnaround time with a surge in cases typically is two weeks.

“I think that is kind of playing out with the Thanksgiving surge,” he said. “So, the 11th (of January) would get you two weeks beyond Christmas and get you a week-and-a-half beyond New Year’s Day.”

Board vice-president Katie Loudin also voiced concerns about folks being together for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“I think if we had that week from Jan. 4 to 11 to understand how our community is being affected and if some of our teachers need to quarantine from being exposed at other places, it would give our principals and our staff the ability to assess those numbers,” Loudin said. “It would give us a week and time to launch a successful blended semester on Jan. 11.”

Fellow board member Dr. Greenbrier Almond said he thought the community should listen to the comments from concerned parents and use them as a challenge to “do better and help keep the active COVID-19 cases down in the area.”

As more disruptions came from the audience, Samples reminded those gathered that they would have another chance to speak at the end of the meeting during the public comments portion of the agenda and explained the rules that guide board meetings.

Board member Kristi Wilkerson, who participated in the meeting virtually, asked why the board needed to vote again on the re-entry plan.

“Why do we need to vote on that, when that was the motion that was made at the last meeting?” Wilkerson asked. “Nothing has changed since that fact.”

Harvey said the agenda item was intended simply to clarify the re-entry plan, noting that a precise date had not been set to return to the blended model in January.

“(The re-entry plan) talks about the resumption of the blended model in January 2021,” Harvey said. “There is not a numerical date in January 2021. It does not say anything else about a date. It does make reference to the school alert system and the color coding there and the attendance guidelines on that once we get back into the blended operation.”

“The only changes that were made to the plan reflect the motion that was acted upon in the last meeting,” Harvey added. “There is nothing new in the plan that would be updated over and above that. The thinking was with this being the last board meeting prior to that Jan. 4, 2021 date, that this would give clarity to the community as to what the intent was. That is the reason for the call for a vote.”

Loudin made a motion to approve the plan with a target resumption date of Jan. 11, 2021.

“I would like the opportunity to make the motion and call it for Jan. 11, 2021 so that our families who are asking for time to plan and our administrators who need to know who is going to be teaching in the buildings will have the time so that we aren’t making the call the night before schools are supposed to open in an emergency meeting,” Loudin said.

Loudin explained that the board is trying to balance the needs and opinions of many different groups with a focus on providing a stable, safe education to county students.

“Whiplash is doing damage to our families, and everyone in here may disagree, but please know that I have received a lot of contact from people who are not comfortable being in this room,” Loudin said. “Your opinion is not the only one in this community. I think we could approve this plan as it is, but I think we should continue remote learning until Jan. 11, 2021 –excepting students that are special education and 504 and Fred Eberle Technical Center Students, as it is right now. Then we can better assess the situation and come back safely.”

Audience members again began shouting at the board, and Samples called for order. When that failed, she called for a temporary suspension of the meeting and the board members left the room for approximately 15 minutes. With a sheriff’s deputy on hand, the meeting resumed at 7:30 p.m.

Harvey outlined how the meeting would proceed.

“We have Item XIX, which is public comments, and will give everyone the opportunity to stand up and speak,” Harvey said. “We will bring everyone up to the microphone so everyone can hear what you have to say. As long as you remain in order, everyone can remain.”

Almond then made a motion to approve the superintendent’s recommendation for Upshur County Schools Re-Entry Plan, effective Jan. 4, 2021. No one seconded the motion, so it died.

That means no changes were made to the board’s previous action and the blended model will resume in January, as conditions permit.

Read more about the community member comments in this separate story.

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