Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness updates Upshur County Board of Education members about the events that led to closing of Upshur County Schools for in-person learning for the fourth week in a row. Pictured, from left, are Harvey, BOE member Pat Long and BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples.

Upshur BOE learns how weekend outbreak unfolded

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 numbers in this story are accurate as of Tuesday night, Oct. 27. They fluctuate daily and even hourly; please see My Buckhannon’s daily story for the latest COVID-19 data in Upshur County and across W.Va.

TALLMANSVILLE – Having ‘feet under the seats’ or getting students back into the classroom was one of the main topics of discussion during Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, held at Washington District Elementary School.

Dr. Jeffery Harvey, Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness, explained to BOE members the events that led to Upshur County Schools having remote learning even though Saturday’s state calendar showed Upshur County as green – an indicator that schools could be open for in-person learning.

Harvey called the events of the weekend ‘challenging’ and said late Saturday afternoon, there was a report of an Upshur County Schools Bus Operator who tested positive for COVID-19.

“We got that report from our employee before the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department received the listing,” Harvey said. “We were able to get a little bit of a jump on getting a list of names for the health folks to jump on. Before the end of the day Saturday, we ended up having a total of two personnel in transportation that had tested positive. So, that is what we started out on Sunday with.”

Harvey went on to share that during the contact tracing on Sunday, the list of folks who were potentially around those positives was lengthy.

“We knew right off the bat that we needed to do something to get our hands wrapped around this situation,” Harvey reported. “We had a testing available Sunday for our transportation department for two hours. We ended up at the end of the day with five additional positives, although one of them was not our employee but a community resident who thought it was another free testing event.”

Harvey said working through the potential list of contacts was a tedious process.

“Every time we had a new positive, compiled the list and started down through the contacts, it got more difficult to be able to identify the full gamut of drivers we would need to be able to pull together a routing schedule,” Harvey said. “That is what fed into our decision to be full remote learning this week.”

According to Harvey, the situation within the transportation department had to be listed as an ‘outbreak.’

“We did act quickly, and hopefully, our ability to test and identify some of those cases, particularly in the asymptomatic cases, [will enable us to] keep those folks out of the rotation and get them on quarantine and get them the time they need,” Harvey said. “Those on quarantine, when I share those numbers, please know that is not indicative of the level of risk the health department feels each one of those individuals is. We cast a pretty wide net. We wanted that number to be much larger than we thought it would be to try and get it stopped as quickly as possible.”

Harvey said those quarantined included individuals who were helping with food distribution and said the quarantine was ‘hyper-cautious.’ He went on to share the numbers of positive cases and quarantined cases within Upshur County Schools while warning that the numbers were outdated “10 minutes ago.”

“We have 20 positive confirmed active cases in the system,” Harvey reported Tuesday, adding that 12 of those are in the transportation department. “We have 73 individuals who are on quarantine; 28 of those are directly related to the transportation department while 16 of those are related to the food distribution last week.”

Harvey said the buses themselves – the equipment – is not the issue.

“The buses have been cleaned frequently recently,” Harvey said.

Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus and Harvey went on to explain there was a request from the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department regarding the quarantine of those in contact with positive cases.

“The quarantine period for many of those will run out on Nov. 4,” Harvey said. “The health department has asked us to ground the transportation department through Nov. 4. That would allow us to work out the quarantine. School personnel are listed as essential workers so there are some measures that would allow asymptomatic workers to work with precautions. However, there would need to be two negative tests and that would only afford us one additional day of in-person learning.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, Upshur County Schools issued a press release that pending the Saturday, Oct. 31 color map, schools would be open for in-person instruction on Thursday, Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, following the blended model. The release noted that Monday, Nov. 2 would be full remote learning for students; Tuesday, Nov. 3 would be an out of school day because it is Election Day; and Wednesday, Nov. 4 would be a full remote day just like Wednesdays are during the blended attendance model.

Also, the press release from Upshur County Schools reminded folks that the pandemic response is constantly changing.

“If anything arises that causes this plan to change, we will notify our community as soon as possible,” the release read.

Following Harvey’s report, BOE Vice President Katie Loudin asked about Upshur County Schools Bus Operators not being required to wear masks while driving buses.

“This is not the policy in every county,” Loudin pointed out, adding that in Lewis County, bus drivers all drive with masks or face shields. “I can’t help but think that if we had the same policy, we wouldn’t have all of these cooks and aides quarantined as well. Can we change the work policy within the transportation department so that they are masked all the time?”

Harvey said the Upshur County BOE is one of, if not the largest, employers in Upshur County.

“Then, when you factor in the families we have contact with, we have the ability to influence or serve as the example for a wide swathe of Upshur County’s population,” Harvey said. “Our goal is to do the right thing in school and out of school. We have the chance to turn the negative into a positive.”

Following about a 15-minute executive session regarding personnel, Upshur County resident Thomas O’Neill addressed the BOE as a parent delegation. O’Neill said he is a parent of five Upshur County Schools Students and said he also has a foreign exchange student in the system.

“I want to come and speak tonight because I think this is important,” O’Neill said. “I think you need to know that the retraction of having in-person schooling this week was devastating to at least the kids in my household, and it still is. We are on the fourth week of schools being closed for in-person teaching, and it is extraordinarily difficult. I fully recognize that COVID is a serious thing – I know people who have been afflicted with it, and I know people who have died from it. I think we all need to take it seriously.”

Regardless, O’Neill said he feels, as a parent, it is important to have kids back in the classroom.

“The remote learning, I don’t feel, is serving our kids well. I feel it is certainly better than what we had in the spring with the complete shutdown, but remote learning is an inferior pedagogical model to in-person learning, and I would just urge you to allow students to come back as soon as possible and even five days a week as soon as possible to make up for lost time,” O’Neill said. “I heard the word ‘hyper-vigilance or hyper-care’ and I feel like ‘hyper-vigilance’ is getting a little bit out of balance with what is really in the best interest of the students. I urge you to please let our kids get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples said she knows everyone connected to the Upshur County Schools is working more than their required hours.

“I appreciate the effort that every single person is making to make this work for our families,” Samples said. “It’s not easy. These decisions are hard, and I know everyone is under stress. I so appreciate the work everyone is doing.”

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