BUCKHANNON – A group of about 50 parents and community members made their way to the Upshur County Board of Education meeting Tuesday at Union Elementary School to let board members know they want their students back in school receiving face-to-face learning and the reasons that is important to them.
A small group gathered outside of Union Elementary School – some with signs which read ‘We love teachers. Let them teach’ or ‘Our Children. Our Choice.’
Like much of the state, Upshur County has used a blended model of learning, with students in the classroom two days per week and remote the other three days.
The West Virginia Department of Education forced Upshur County schools to close entirely to students for several weeks in October and November due to high levels of community spread of COVID-19, and the school board made the decision in late November to stay remote for the remainder of the calendar year. Other counties have since followed Upshur County’s lead, including Monongalia, Marion, Harrison and Kanawha counties.
One of those outside the school Tuesday was Michelle Zickefoose, who spoke with My Buckhannon to explain why she was attending the meeting.
“Basically, we would just like to have our children back in school full time,” Zickefoose said. “A lot of us are struggling and our kids are struggling. That is why we are here – to fight to get our kids back to in-person.”
Megan Westfall also held a sign asking Upshur County BOE members to return students to in-person learning. She said one thing she feels makes remote learning hard is the Schoology program.
“Schoology is very poorly executed,” Westfall told My Buckhannon. “Accessing the materials has not been consistent – after the first quarter, everything changed and we had to learn to access things again. The videos do not work correctly. I think my son needs one-on-one time with his teacher which he does not get (with remote learning.)
“I think the decision Upshur County made to go completely remote until the end of the year, even though the map said we could go (to school), was wrong.”
Zickefoose said she agrees with Westfall.
“Also, a lot of us are working parents, and it is very hard,” Zickefoose said. “Our kids do not get the education they deserve because it is difficult to cram in two hours in the evening what our kids would learn being in school for eight hours. They are not going to get the full education they should. And most of us are not teachers.”
During the meeting, BOE members voted to move the delegation comments to the front of the agenda so the parents could speak and the board could consider their input before making any further decisions regarding remote learning. Individuals and groups could make five-to-10 minute presentations to the school board and let them know what they are feeling and thinking.
The first to speak was Shanna Collins, who asked BOE members for an in-person and equal opportunity education for her children.
“In-person education is essential and teachers are essential to our children,” Collins said. “Not allowing our children the option to attend school in-person is unfair. I would like the option to send my children to school five days a week. I feel like parents should get to make the decision on what is best for their families. However, if doing the blended method is best for the health and safety of our community, I think that is acceptable for now.”
West Virginia governor Jim Justice and the state department of education have focused on dual methods of education, offering a remote option for all the students in the state while fine-tuning a color-coded map designed to indicate the safety level for in-person school in each county.
Since schools opened on Sept. 8, 651 West Virginians have died from COVID-19 and the number of active cases has grown from 2,806 to 20,059. Upshur County had 50 total cases when schools opened; now the county has 587.
This week, half the counties in the state, including Upshur, were red or orange on the school map, forcing full-time remote learning.
“This is a difficult time, but the decisions you are making are failing,” Collins told the board. “These choices are affecting children negatively. You need to find a better option than full remote.”
Collins also brought up the point that schools are a safe haven for many students.
“What happens when you take that away? What happens when the stress of having to work, having to teach and all responsibilities is just too much? Will it destroy marriages? Will the relationship between children and their parents suffer long-term effects?” Collins asked.
She also offered possible solutions to staffing issues as teachers are increasingly forced to quarantine due to the rise in community cases.
“If there are not enough teachers and substitutes, place students in the cafeteria with their tables and bring in substitute aides and volunteers, because I believe a school setting will help the students complete their assignments more efficiently,” Collins said. “Not enough bus drivers? Make calls and give the option to self-transport before going to remote learning. Fear of liability? Have waivers for families who send their children for in-person learning.”
“I thank you and I hope you make the right choice to provide in-person education,” Collins said.
Student Leah Collins, who is in fifth grade at Rock Cave Elementary School, also addressed the board. Leah said she wished students could attend in-person school for at least four days a week.
“I think our teachers are better at teaching us because they know just what to say and ask us to get us the proper education,” Leah said. “I miss my school family and friends and I think we should be able to go back to school.”
The next individual to address the school board was Brandon Weese, who asked he be allotted the entire 10 minutes to speak.
“I would like to know what the meaning behind no in-person school in Upshur County is?” Weese asked. “If it is a teacher shortage, why is it happening? Who is responsible for hiring and recruiting teachers? Our students need school.”
Weese said that even before COVID-19, Upshur County Schools were not up to par academically.
“Where do we anticipate the kids are going to be with the inconsistencies from school to school here in Upshur County with virtual learning?” Weese asked. “26.7 percent of Upshur County kids under the age of 18 are below the poverty level, based on the 2019 census.”
Weese said kids need school for more than just education.
“For many kids, school is their safe place – their refuge from their home life,” he said. “We do not know the situation. We must still believe some kids are better off in school than in their homes. Some are facing not only physical but mental abuse. Schools in Upshur County are the number one reporting agency for Child Protective Services. With no school being held, no reports are being made.”
“There are kids in this county right now who are home without water, without electricity and without heat, and yes, even though we have a meal program, they are without food. Really, the only meals these kids were getting was school breakfasts and lunches.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci has urged schools to remain open, Weese said.
“The West Virginia State Board of Education superintendent … went on record to state that he hoped other counties did not follow Upshur County’s lead,” Weese said. “With that being said, we are presently spending $7,000 a week in fuel to run buses with kids that have IEPs to continue to go to in-person instruction. All 48 bus runs are being made with fewer kids being picked up than could fill one bus. The kids who do not have IEPs are not permitted to go to school four days a week.”
Weese also pointed to the struggles of parents who work all day.
“The teaching is being left to the parents who are trying to run a household, cook dinner, then switch hats to the role of teacher for hours after work,” Weese said. “The children are winding down and it’s time to eat dinner and for family time. But wait. We have to cancel family time because as parents we have to teach. How about the children whose parents are not helping them or who cannot help them? Who is parenting for them?”
Zickefoose was the final delegation to speak and she asked BOE members to reopen schools for in-person schools for learning in January.
“I think virtual learning has been a struggle for parents, students and teachers,” Zickefoose said. “We are all struggling. As a working mom, I am coming home, having to teach and put that other hat on. Our kids’ education is crammed into two hours rather than getting time to play at recess with their friends. It is crammed into two hours, and that is not a quality education. I am here to say kids deserve better. I really think in-person learning would benefit everybody. Teachers are working as hard as they can – they are answering messages at 8 p.m., and it is not fair to anybody, especially our children. I want our kids to measure up to other kids in other counties.”
The board discussed the re-entry plan and the rationale for their decisions, during which the meeting was briefly suspended due to interruptions from the audience, as detailed in this story. They opted to keep the plan the same, with the goal to return to blended learning in January.
Toward the end of the meeting, folks who did not sign up as a delegation were afforded time to speak during the public comments portion of the agenda.
The first public comments came from Brittany Westfall, who first apologized to the BOE members for ‘speaking out of order.’ Westfall said she is angry for her child.
“How can you look at my child and many other children in this room and tell them their education doesn’t matter as much as some of the other children’s do?” Westfall asked. “IEP students get to go multiple days a week – which is OK for me. Teachers’ kids get to be at school – maybe not all of them – five days a week. They get to go if they are at that school and they get to go and learn with their teacher. They get to go to gym class and have gym with their friends. But my child does not and so many other children do not. As a parent that angers me. It does not anger me at any individual but it angers me for my child. My child is suffering – you guys (the BOE) do not even have a clue. I’m a good parent, and I try to do my best for my child.”
Patrick Pasterick said being in isolation is not working for kids.
“These kids need a minimum of two days a week, if not five days,” Pasterick said. “They need to be in school … I understand people are scared. We cannot keep running from nature. Are we going to isolate our children forever?”
Pasterick said in California, there are more than 40 million people and only two kids under the age of 18 have died as a result of COVID-19.
“I don’t know why you guys are doing this,” Pasterick said. “Be brave. Be brave.”
Another parent said she has had to quit her job to stay home and care for her kids. She is also having to pay for a tutor.
Jennifer Clem said she had to leave work because she could not afford to put both of her kids into daycare.
“I love my kids and they are my world, but I cannot be their teacher,” Clem said. “I am not their teacher. I graduated from high school 15 years ago and the way they are doing math now, I cannot explain it to her. These kids need to be in school. There are so many kids that are struggling.”
Another parent urged the BOE to adapt and overcome. Todd Starkey said he feels the parents spoke at the beginning of the year.
“We were given three options – homeschool our child, virtual learning for our child or send them to school,” Starkey said. “I voted to send my child to school, but they are not going to school. If we signed up for what we want, why are you not giving us that?”