At Monday evening’s Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting , Director of Technology Ruth Bland informed board members that the board office staff and grant writer Laura Young are working on a grant application for funding from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The USDA provides the Rural Utilities Services Distance Learning and Teaching Grant of up to $1 million for school systems in need of upgrading technology.
Bland explained that the West Virginia Department of Education has asked all county school boards to provide mobile devices and Internet access for all students. This decree was made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw students attending school virtually from home for two and a half months.
In case the pandemic continues, or another issue arises which sees schools closed for a long period of time, the state board expects each county to be prepared to provide an education to the students.
“The state Department of Education has asked us to really focus on being able to put devices in every child’s hand – preschool through twelfth grade,” Bland said. “We are working with the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation to help us with the grant.”
In the grant, Bland said the school system is requesting funding to purchase Surface Gos for each student and Surface Pros for each teacher. The application also includes requests for infrastructure upgrades to all the schools and a large upgrade at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School which cannot use WiFi connectivity.
“I am working with Advantage Technologies, and they are coming this week to look at how we can place a hub on the outside of the building where community members and students can come and plug in and use the Internet from our building,” Bland said. “It will be password protected, just like the other ones that have the WiFi.”
Students will be able to use an ethernet connection at the hub, which will be covered by a pavilion located by the cafeteria of GBEMS. The school will also require more drops in each classroom for Internet connections, electrical upgrades and power strips.
The total of the application comes to $811,575 and requires a 15 percent match from the county. Bland explained that the technology budget does have funding that could cover the match, adding that she and treasurer Sherry Radcliffe presented the proposal through West Virginia Philanthropy to several state foundations that may also provide funding for the project.
The grant is due to the USDA July 13, and Bland said it would take at least two months before they know if it has been awarded.
While the upgrades and new devices will be a step in the right direction for Pocahontas County Schools, there are some issues that may arise in the future, Bland said.
“I would like to see a technology support specialist in every school,” she said. “That is something that I will probably not see during my career here, but when you have more and more devices, then there’s going to be more and more problems along the way. We need somebody that will be able to repair, recover, replace and troubleshoot problems within the network.”
The board has two technology specialists – Gary Beverage and James Chaney – but they are spread thin as it is, keeping all the county schools’ technology running smoothly.
“They are excellent employees, and they really know their stuff,” Bland said.
The other issue Bland mentioned is the lack of fast Internet speed in the county. She said Region IV has been working with Pocahontas County to bring better Internet to the communities, but there is no estimated time for when that will happen.
The State Department of Education also requested each county provide information on the Internet speeds of each student and teacher.
“Altogether, twenty-five to thirty percent of our staff does not have adequate Internet service at their homes, and at least thirty percent of our children do not have adequate Internet services at their homes,” Bland said.
During the pandemic quarantine, the schools opened their WiFi connection to the students and allowed them to use it free of charge to do their school work. The Pocahontas County Free Libraries, excluding Green Bank, have also had its WiFi open to the public for those who do not have adequate Internet at home.
Bland said this grant would greatly improve the technology in the county schools and will provide students another way to receive their education.
“Hopefully, with this grant, we can combat the digital divide we have in Pocahontas County,” she said.
• Superintendent Terrence Beam gave a report on several items:
– Pocahontas County High School graduation will be Saturday, June 20, at 2 p.m. at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. The rain date will be Sunday, June 21, at 2 p.m.
– The board plans to apply to the West Virginia School Building Authority for a Major Improvement Plan (MIP) project to replace the sprinkler system at Marlinton Elementary School.
“Regardless of what the future of Marlinton Elementary is, we do know this, the sprinkler system needs to be replaced in that school,” Beam said. “It will not be as extensive as some of the other projects we’ve had, but we think Marlinton Elementary School will benefit by having this.”
– The board has formed a committee to work on a re-entry plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Beam said he has talked to other county superintendents to see what their plans are and is working with the committee to come up with a plan that is safe for the students and employees.
“Our biggest obstacle, by far, is going to be transportation because our buses are covering a large area, and if you have to social distance on the bus – I don’t know how you transport students to and from school,” Beam said.
The committee will work out the kinks of the plan and Beam said they want to do it right, so they will work on it further before presenting the proposal to the board.
• The board took time during the meeting to thank board vice president Becky Campbell for her four years as a board member. Each member reflected on her passion for the students and shared their gratitude for her willingness to ensure the students receive the best education possible.
Campbell thanked the board for their kind words and tearfully said she would miss serving the school system, but is proud of the work she did.
The board also bid farewell to student representative Seirra Rodriguez, who read a “homework assignment” she was given by Beam. The essay explained how she was a transfer student to Pocahontas County and how the students at PCHS made her feel like she was at home.
She thanked the board for giving her the opportunity to provide a voice for the students and took a group selfie that she plans to hang in her dorm room next year.
In miscellaneous management, the board approved the following:
• Date corrections on Policy 3120.12 – Substitutes in Areas of Critical Need and Shortage.
• Temporary Waiver of Policy 4433 – Vacation.
• Library instructional service for Marlinton and Hillsboro Elementary schools for the 2020-2021 school year, paid for with Federal Title I funds for said year.
• RFO Green Bank bathrooms bid to successful bidder, Architectural Interior Products, Inc., in the amount of $16,148 – $9,088 materials and $7,060 labor – to install bathroom partitions at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School in the main entrance and middle school wing bathrooms.
• To purchase two Bluebird gasoline buses for Pocahontas County Schools.
• To have board attorney Jason Long draft a document stating Jacob Meck Construction, Inc. has permission to use a portion of the board property in Green Bank.
In personnel management, the board approved the following:
• Employment of Vada Boback as teacher of early childhood at Hillsboro Elementary School, at state minimum salary based on degree and experience plus equity, effective for the 2020-2021 school year. Term of employment is 200 days.
• Employment of Rachel E. McComb as teacher of mathematics at Marlinton Middle School, at state minimum salary based on degree and experience plus equity, effective for the 2020-2021 school year. Term of employment is 200 days.
• Employment of Kevin Thompson as cafeteria manager for the summer feeding program at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, at hourly rate of pay based on state minimum, effective three days a week, six hours per day, for up to 11 weeks retroactive to May 28, contingent upon COVID-19 restrictions.
• Employment of Emmet Doolittle as cook III for the summer feeding program at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, at hourly rate of pay based on state minimum, effective three days of week, six hours per day, for up to 11 weeks retroactive to May 28, contingent upon COVID-19 restrictions.
• Employment of Tessa M. Himelrick as itinerant teacher of special education – multi-categorical/autism – at Pocahontas County High School, at state minimum salary based on degree and experience plus equity, effective for the 2020-2021 school year. Term of employment is 200 days.
• Change in contract – Lori A. Doolittle and the board of education mutually agree to change her existing professional contract as Coordinator of Food Services/Child Nutrition Director/Truancy Diversion Specialist for Pocahontas County Schools, term of employment 220 days to Food Service Directory/Truancy Diversion Specialist, term of employment 216 days.
• Creation of position Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Federal Programs for Pocahontas County Schools, at state minimum salary based on degree and experience, effective July 1, for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, term of employment is 261 days. Fifty percent of salary paid for with federal funds.
The next board meeting will be Monday, July 6, at 8 a.m., at the board of education conference room.