School re-entry decision tabled until Friday

BUCKHANNON – One item on Monday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting agenda of particular concern to many local residents was item XVI, which was ‘Upshur County Re-Entry Plan.’

Folks had hoped some discussion about the plan would shed some light on just how attending schools in Upshur County would look this coming Fall due to the pandemic. However, residents may need to wait a couple more days for an answer, after the Upshur BOE tabled it.

Two Upshur County residents signed up to speak to speak and share some of their concerns and ideas for Upshur County BOE members to consider for that re-entry plan.

Vanessa Perkins said when she was fighting in Iraq, she saw community homes, hospitals and schools being destroyed, but said the people were determined to rebuild, adding that the first thing they rebuilt were their schools.

Vanessa Perkins, an Upshur County resident, shares her views on the importance of having students in schools for the fall semester.

“The country that lost everything was most determined to have their kids educated,” Perkins said. “Schools are more than an academic building – they are a sign of hope, a guarantee of normalcy, a safe haven for children, and when a town is destroyed and schools are reopened, it demonstrates to the children that they are okay, that they are safe, that they will continue to learn and prosper and that they are loved.”

“Of course, we are not at war with an enemy – but for many, COVID crisis seems to be a big battle – a battle of wills, a battle of science and opinion, a battle of experts of opposing views and even in this room, it seems people have different opinions of sending our kids back to school,” she continued.

Perkins said the answer is unequivocally yes – ‘yes, send our children back to school.’

“Not because experts dictate it, but because it is the right thing to do for our children,” Perkins said. “We have two choices – to live in fear, face the fear or hide. I ask that you, Dr. Stankus, and the BOE … give our children the education they deserve. They deserve the building of hope; they deserve to know that life is full of uncertainty, but we will overcome.”

Perkins said if children are not in school, they are still being exposed to the same germs because they will not be at home, but at neighbors’ houses, daycares and possibly on the streets.

“It’s the parent’s responsibility to make the right decisions for their kids; it’s your responsibility to allow parents the opportunity of a free public education if that is what they choose,” Perkins said.

Buckhannon pediatrician Dr. Raymond Leonard was the second to speak about the re-entry for the fall. He said the guidelines for social and physical distancing are very well-written and said schools can follow all guidelines.

“Our students, especially our middle and high schoolers are losing by not physically being in school,” he said. “I encourage us to put our emotions aside and listen to what medical societies are telling us and bring our kids back to schools with precautions. The plan must be fluid, and it must be able to change.”

Upshur County pediatrician Dr. Raymond Leonard addresses the Upshur County BOE Monday evening about having students and teachers back in the school buildings for school in the fall.

Leonard compared the United States to Hong Kong regarding COVID-19 deaths and said the difference is in Hong Kong, people are willing to wear a mask.

“You can see the difference it has made over there and it will make a difference in our schools,” Leonard said. “We can do it. We can do it safely.”

After the residents spoke, Dr. Jeff Harvey shared the results of the Upshur County Family re-entry survey that was offered online.

Dr. Jeffrey Harvey, Upshur County Schools director of safety and emergency preparedness, said 1,816 people responded to the community survey regarding re-entry to Upshur County Schools in Fall 2020. He said at the end, those responding could make comments, and he went through the more than 30 pages of comments looking for common themes.

“First off, there is some community concern about student adherence to PPE and physical distance guidelines,” Harvey said. “There are questions about how we will implement and enforce guidelines. There are a lot of people that are looking for us to address that in some way.”

Second, Harvey said those responding are looking for a model for face-to-face learning in the fall as well as concerns about the consistency of online learning.

“These are things people are seeking information about,” he said. “It seems like there is some appetite for options. Obviously, there are concerns about disease spread – not so much about ‘will it occur?’ as much as ‘what we will do when certain things do occur?’ – such as how will the system handle makeup work for students [who may become ill] or even when faculty and staff have to quarantine themselves for two weeks. There is also some concern about the vulnerable populations outside of school.”

Harvey said there were lots of comments with concerns about the health and safety of faculty and staff at the schools and the ability to adequately do their jobs, as well as concerns about stress management and appropriate and adequate breaks during the day.

“There was concern about the populations on the school buses and concerns about out-of-state and travel to hot spots and what to do when people come back from those areas,” Harvey said. “Finally, comments were made about childcare for students when they are not in school.”

Harvey said he feels there is a lot of confusion about the terms ‘social distancing’ and ‘physical distancing.’ He said there is also a lot of concern about students not being able to socialize in general.
He also pointed out that 373 of those responding to the survey indicated that they did not have reliable internet access in their homes. Stankus said that teachers will be provided with directions to reach out to students who have internet and who do not have internet access.

Student Services Director Jodie Akers said that attendance would look completely different this upcoming school year, adding if students have a fever, are coughing or are sick, they should stay home – and said that learning that day could take place remotely. Stankus said guidelines on attendance will be sent to the parents to help guide them on whether or not a child should attend school based on their symptoms.

Following an executive session, BOE member Kristi Wilkerson made a motion to table the vote on the Upshur County Framework for Re-entry. Wilkerson said the BOE members are taking the re-entry seriously.

“We have a number of questions, and we know there could be additional information available to us later this week,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said there are a couple of thoughts the BOE members wanted folks to know.

“One is that we have been informed recently that West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools (Clayton) Burch will be likely discussing information from the state department later this week, possibly Wednesday, and we would like to have that before we move forward,” Wilkerson said. “Second, we would like to receive feedback from our employees on what they are thinking. Third, we want to share that we have every intention of returning to school in buildings this fall. We are favorable towards the framework that is currently in place; however, we are still under a state of emergency from Governor Jim Justice and until that is lifted, our understanding is that we cannot say we are definitely going back to school in August.”

Wilkerson requested the BOE meet in special session on Friday, July 10, 2020 at 4 p.m. at the Upshur County BOE Office. BOE members voted unanimously to table the vote on the re-entry plan until the Friday meeting.

In other business, Tim Derico, Director of Facilities for Upshur County Schools, said progress has been made in projects in schools across the county.

“The project is rolling on the bleachers at the high school,” Derico said. “The materials should arrive in two-and-a-half more weeks. It should begin when the materials arrive, and the project should be finished about four weeks after we receive the materials.”

The next regular meeting of the Upshur County BOE is scheduled for Tuesday, July 21, 2020 at 7 p.m. at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.

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