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Upshur County students set to return to the classroom two days per week starting Jan. 19

TENNERTON – Hours after the West Virginia State Board of Education met virtually to mandate that classrooms across the Mountain State reopen to in-person learning regardless of the levels of COVID-19 spread, the Upshur County school board gathered at Buckhannon-Upshur High School to approve a local reopening plan.

Ultimately, Upshur County will return to the two-day-per-week blended model the county followed in the fall. The color-coded map will only apply to the high school, which will close if Upshur County is red.

The basics of the current Upshur County plan are:

  • Students with a last name beginning in A-L will attend in-person instruction on Monday and Thursday
  • Students with a last name beginning in M-Z will attend in-person classes on Tuesday and Friday
  • Remote learning will be used the other three days of the week
  • Schools will be dismissed at 2 p.m.
  • Full-time county remote learning and full-time state virtual school will continue to be offered
  • The color-coded map will not apply to grades Pre-K to 8
  • High school will be remote if the county is red on the map the previous day
  • Masks are required for all students at all times, except lunch
  • Physical distancing must be maintained in all schools
  • Curbside food will be provided at each school on Wednesday

The flurry of activity comes five months after Gov. Jim Justice unveiled his initial plan for handling school amidst the pandemic, which included a color-coded map, five levels of safety regulations and hundreds of high-speed internet access points.

At the time, Justice called the school safety map a breakthrough innovation that states across the nation could use as a model to safely reopen schools. But as COVID-19 cases surged — from about 150 a day in early September to more than 1,400 a day now — the map was tweaked more than a dozen times to modify how the different safety levels were calculated.

Eighty-five percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have come over that period, according to the DHHR.

Now, the map has been mostly scrapped after Justice earlier this month declared his plan a ‘failure’ and said he would order all students in elementary and middle schools back to school five days a week starting Jan. 19.

“We have got to get our kids back in school,” Justice said. “We tried, really, really hard, but we all know that we are failing.”

Justice said the decision was based on studies that show that COVID-19 transmission in schools is low, under one percent.

The governor, however, pledged counties would still have local control, and many school boards implemented their own reentry plans specific to their health needs, including some that were to remain remote into February while teachers received both rounds of vaccinations.

That all changed again Wednesday when West Virginia Board of Education sought to override those local decisions with yet another, separate plan.

For Pre-K through eighth grade, the WVBE said students are to return to in-person instruction regardless of the color of the DHHR County Alert System map – however, county school boards may work with local health officials and close individual classrooms and schools when a specific health need is identified. The state encouraged counties to resume in-person instruction four or five days per week but said counties could continue to utilize blended instruction models that provide at least two days per week of in-person instruction.

Another stipulation handed down from the WVBE is that students in grades 9-12 must attend school in-person unless their county is red on the map. If a county turns red, high schools will move to remote learning the next day and may remain in remote learning until the following Monday.

While remote, teachers and staff will continue to provide essential student support services including meals, student engagement and special education services and support to at-risk students.

Full-time virtual learning also continue to be offered to families who choose that option, the WVBE said.

Later Wednesday night, Upshur County Board of Education members heard from local parents, teachers and concerned residents who asked questions and shared their views on the re-entry plan.

After considering the comments from the public who attended the meeting both in person and virtually, the board voted 4-to-1 to have students who are enrolled in in-person learning begin instruction again on Tuesday, Jan. 19 utilizing the blended method which was in place at the beginning of the school year.

Board member Pat Long cast the vote against the plan, while president Dr. Tammy Samples, vice president Katie Loudin, Dr. Greenbrier Almond and Kristi Wilkerson voted in favor.

That means Upshur County students whose last names begin with A-L will attend in-person instruction on Monday and Thursday and those students whose last names begin with M-Z will attend in-person classes on Tuesday and Friday – unless other arrangements have been made. On the other three days, students will utilize remote learning.

Upshur County has permission through the state for students to continue to be dismissed at 2 p.m., the board said.

Loudin made the motion that the BOE follow the guidance given by the WVBE, but to beef up the safety guidelines while in school.

“Face coverings are mandated for all grades, and all families will have the opportunity to continue what we will call full-remote local options or virtual learning, and that we will review the push into a more in-person instruction at a later date,” Loudin said.

Wilkerson asked for an amendment adding that “social distancing, physical distancing will be pursued as much as possible – not that it will be done just when convenient – but that we will focus on as much space as possible among students.”

The board plans to review the reentry framework in February.

Other counties around the state have had mixed reactions to the state board’s order preempting local control. Berkeley County disregarded the mandate and voted to remain in remote learning until faculty and staff can be vaccinated, while Monongalia County said it will apply for a waiver after it planned to stay remote into February.

Meanwhile, a statewide teacher group said Thursday it will offer legal support to counties who make decisions to protect the health of staff and students. The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia announced Thursday that it will also file for injunctions against the state Board of Education, the W.Va. Department of Education and some county boards of education.

“Appointed policymakers issuing in-person learning mandates to local boards, who are duly elected by the citizens of their communities to govern their local schools, is an incredible overstepping of authority,” the group said in a press release. “To make such a decision while meeting virtually and behind closed doors is astoundingly tone deaf.”

The WVBE continues to meet remotely, and Justice has rebuffed requests to hold in-person press briefings.

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus reported that the school system is coming up with ways to help catch students up on learning.

“We have a lot of ideas, and right now, we are preparing to go back out to our teachers and our staff and leadership to ask them for more ideas,” Stankus said. “A couple of things we have determined we want to do include an after-school tutoring/mentoring program. We will pay our staff to stay after school and offer a supper program for our students at every school in the county. Our schools will develop those plans.”

Stankus said they are also working to start a summer academy, which would be an enrichment program to spark interest in engagement so students are excited about learning again.

“We would like to offer that at every school this summer,” Stankus said.

She said Buckhannon-Upshur High School is planning to offer a credit recovery period once the students come back in January.

A question was posed asking about students who had IEPs and how they would attend school. Stankus said they will attend in-person school based on each individual plan.

“We are mandated by law to follow the mandates as outlined in the IEP,” Stankus explained. “That is federal law.”

Another attendee asked if it was possible for the school board to set a tentative date when students will go back to full-time in-person learning, or to state a date when they will be discussing the issue again. Samples said that is the intention of the BOE to discuss that matter ‘during the Feb. 23, 2021 meeting.’

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