The school re-entry committee presented its extensive plan for the 2020-2021 school year at the August 11 Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting.
Superintendent Terrence Beam explained that the committee consisted of 84 school employees, members of the Pocahontas County Health Department and representatives from Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, who worked together to create a plan allowing students to have options for returning to the classroom and/or learning virtually.
Governor Jim Justice decreed that all West Virginia schools will return in some sort of fashion on September 8, and the West Virginia Department of Education requires each county to present a plan for that return. Since there are still many unknown variables concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, Beam said the plan is a living document which can change if there is an increase in the number of positive cases in Pocahontas County.
“Please understand that we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “We’ve not been down this road before, and each day we’re getting confronted with different obstacles along the way, and we try to address them as we can. We are going to be prepared to have students come into our buildings September 8, if the governor allows us to do so.”
Beam said that postcards were sent to all county parents, asking them to choose an option for their children. At this time, there are two options for the students to return to school. One is a two-day face-to-face, three-day distance learning option and the other is virtual school offered through the West Virginia Learns Program.
The students who opt to physically go back to school will be divided alphabetically by last name. Students with last names starting with A through L will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays. They will be given instructional materials to take home for the rest of the week which they will return the following Monday. Students with last names starting with M through Z will attend school Thursdays and Fridays. They will receive instructional material for the other three days of the week to do at home.
Schools will be closed to students on Wednesdays for a deep cleaning. The cooks will continue to make meals to be delivered and custodians will work to disinfect the schools.
“The other option parents can choose is virtual instruction,” Beam said. “Virtual instruction we are doing through the West Virginia Learns Program as far as the platform is concerned. We are going to attempt to use as many of our county teachers to deliver the virtual instruction as we possibly can. We will be able to do that with certainty with our elementary kids because our elementary teachers are all certified to teach all grade levels and all subject areas.
“Now, when we get into middle school and high school, it’s a little different story because it’s more specialized,” he continued. “It is possible that we would have students take virtual courses that we don’t have a qualified teacher to teach. We may have to use the West Virginia Virtual Schools platform and use some of their teachers to deliver that.”
At this time, Beam said approximately 10 percent of students have asked for the virtual school option, with the rest preferring a return to the physical classroom.
“That’s the only two options we have right now,” he said. “We have been asked about offering the distance learning option where kids stay home five days a week like they did back in the spring and be taught that way. The problem with that is we do not have the necessary equipment and the devices to deliver that instruction to everybody. So we can’t offer distance learning on a five days a week schedule at this point.”
The board is pursuing a grant to purchase devices for all the students, but will not know if it has been awarded until September.
Even with the plan in place, Beam said there is a possibility that everything may change, depending on the governor, the health department and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources [DHHR].
The governor is working on a map which shows counties in a certain color depending on the number of active cases of COVID-19 that are reported. If a county is green, the school plan can stay in place. If the county changes to yellow, orange or red, the county will be asked to make a change.
“Our county health department can also decide that we need to learn remotely like we did in the spring,” Beam said. “They are going to use this color-coded map that the governor talked about earlier last week as far as determining where we are with the outbreak and the spread of the virus.”
In order to keep the children safe, Beam said the school system is going to require teachers and all students – kindergarten through 12th grade – to wear masks.
“When students get on the bus, if they do not have a mask, the bus drivers will have a supply of disposable masks, and they will get one they can put on to ride the bus,” Beam said.
“When they come to school, then if they take off their mask and refuse to wear the mask for example, which is something that we’re really concerned about, then we will have to isolate those children from the rest of the school,” he continued. “We are expecting some more guidance on that from the state education department.”
In regard to employees, Beam explained that if any employee is uncomfortable returning or has a medical reason why they cannot return to school, they must have written documentation from a doctor.
After his introductory presentation of the plan, Beam introduced the sub-committee heads who gave a report on each area of focus in the plan. The committee had nine sub-committees including secretaries, Career and Technical Education [CTE], healthcare, maintenance, food services, curriculum, transportation, technology and special education.
• Treasurer Sherry Radcliff reported that the secretaries will act as the “keepers of the door” to each school. Students and staff will all enter the schools through the front doors and have their temperatures checked before moving on to their classrooms.
All visitors will go through the same system, although it is strongly suggested people refrain from visiting the school unless absolutely necessary.
If a parent or guardian picks up a child, they will be asked to stay outside the school and the student will be brought to them.
• Pocahontas County High School principal Joe Riley reported that all high school students who are able to drive to school are allowed to drive, free of charge. The school is opening this option up to lower the number of students riding the bus.
As for the CTE programs, Riley said he hopes to have the CTE students attend school four days a week to get their hours in to become completers. The students will attend all classes two days a week and just their CTE courses the other two days.
Riley added that if school returns to remote learning, it may be students could still attend their CTE courses, as long as they are able to socially distance in the labs and shops.
• Director of maintenance Ron Hall gave a report on the exhaustive efforts to prepare the schools for the return to instruction.
Hall said plexi-glass has been installed to protect all secretaries and in the food service lines. Work has been done on the freezers which have worked overtime this year due to the extended meal service plan.
For the classrooms, Hall has ordered extra supplies to have on hand, including disinfecting wipes, towels, tissues, trash cans and trash bags. He has also ordered 500 gallons of hand sanitizer. He will keep an eye on the supply of hand sanitizer to ensure there is never a shortage.
Hall said they have purchased backpack sprayers for all the classrooms. These are static sprayers which use a chorine tablet for disinfecting students’ book bags or backpacks.
The custodians have been instructed to clean doorknobs, toilet handles and sink handles – and other high traffic items.
All water fountains have been turned off, but bottle refilling stations will be in operation.
Hall said overall, the schools look fantastic and are ready for the new year.
• Director of food services Lori Doolittle reported that the cooks and volunteer staff have done an amazing job with the meal service this summer and are continuing to work on providing meals for students at school and at home.
Doolittle said students and staff are required to wash their hands before and after every meal. In the elementary schools, students will be eating in their core classrooms, six feet apart. The middle and high school students will eat in the cafeterias and adjacent rooms, six feet apart.
Meals will be provided for the three days students are home. Delivery of those meals will follow the same plan that was used during the spring and summer.
• School nurse Jenny Friel gave a report on the healthcare plan for the year. She said the county has purchased masks and shields for every student and employee. Each student and staff member will receive two to three masks and a face shield for the year.
Friel said they may also use their own masks if they have already purchased them.
Now that there are three LPNs on staff and Community Care of West Virginia is in three of the schools, Friel said she is confident they will be able to keep a close eye on students and staff who may display symptoms.
Friel reiterated that they are not there to diagnose COVID-19, just to monitor for symptoms and to make sure everyone is safe. She said anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or greater will be taken aside to a nursing station and isolated. No COVID-19 tests will be performed at the schools.
A screening check list will be sent home with every student and Friel advises that parents should go over the list with their children every morning prior to getting on the bus or taking them to school.
• Director of curriculum, instruction and federal programs Lynne Bostic gave a report concerning curriculum for the school year.
Bostic explained that teachers will have to essentially work on two kinds of lesson plans – those for the two in-class instruction days and for the three at-home instruction days. They are also going to be prepared for remote learning if it is ever decided the school must close again.
She said teachers are concerned about the level of detailed instruction students received from March to May and they want to focus on review for the students to quickly get back to grade level.
In addition to preparing for students, Bostic said the curriculum committee looked at ways to offer new professional development specific to the current situation in which teachers will have students in and out of the classroom for the foreseeable future.
Bostic added that the calendar allows for continuing ed or professional development August 25 to September 3, which may seem like a lot, but will give teachers more time to hash out plans for every possible scenario.
For the students taking the virtual option, Bostic said they will be required to be in virtual instruction for the first nine weeks of school. If at that time, they decide they’d rather return to school, they may. She said it is better to require that length of time to ease the transition if students do not enjoy virtual learning.
Grades in virtual learning classes will be recorded in the same fashion as grades for students attending school. Bostic added that all instructional material will be graded, unlike the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
• Director of transportation, technology and student services Ruth Bland reported on several items from the committee.
First, with transportation, Bland said the buses will be less full due to the A through L, N through Z schedule taking place.
Each bus driver will have masks available for students and each bus will be outfitted with a hand sanitizing station. Students will be required to sanitize their hands getting on and off the bus.
Buses will be filled from the back to front, regardless of students’ ages. Although preschoolers are not required to wear masks, Bland said it is recommended for them, as well.
Bus arrivals at schools will be staggered since students will have to have their temperatures checked as they enter the schools. They will social distance six feet apart as they wait in line to enter the schools.
Bland said the transfer bus which typically loads at Marlinton Elementary School will instead load at Marlinton Middle School, where there is more room for students to safely congregate. Marlinton Middle School and Pocahontas County High School students who typically get on the bus at MES will instead be routed to MMS for transport.
As for cleaning the buses, Bland said the board has purchased air compressors with wands that will be used to remove all dust and debris before each bus route. They will also have commercial steamers to steam the floors. The bus drivers will use a solution of Pergo at two percent to wipe down all the bus seats and high contact areas.
The state has issued a requirement to keep all windows open on the buses to allow air to circulate, but Bland said it will be difficult to do that when the buses are parked in high-dust areas. Bland said they will use common sense to keep the buses clean and will leave the windows down as much as possible.
For the activity bus runs, the northern and southern routes will now have two buses each to allow students to social distance.
In technology, Bland said the portable devices for all juniors and seniors have been programmed and delivered to the students. They will have access to Office 365 and Microsoft Office Suite. The Microsoft SurfaceGo 2s are tablets with attachable keyboards to be used as laptops, if necessary.
Due to the number of students who do not have access to technology or adequate Internet, Bland said the West Virginia Department of Education, in conjunction with Alpha Technologies, will be adding WiFi external hotspots at five of the six school facilities, excluding Green Bank Elementary-Middle School.
The antennas will expand WiFi capabilities into the parking lots and cover a larger area. Students will be able to log on to the Internet at the spots, which include Hillsboro and Marlinton elementary schools, Marlinton Middle School, Pocahontas County High School and the Pocahontas County Board Office.
The WiFi will be accessible to all students, including those who are taking college courses from home.
Since GBEMS is in the National Radio Quiet Zone, it will be outfitted with a communication station which will have ethernet cords for students to hook their devices into for Internet access.
For special education students and students with IEPs [Individualized Education Plans], Bland said rules and regulations have not been relaxed much. The state did relax the timeline for testing of students with IEPs, but otherwise, they are to receive instruction as they would any other year.
Students who opt for virtual learning will have their IEPs shared with the instructor, so that he or she is aware of their learning needs.
Bland added that speech therapy and occupational therapy will continue through Zoom and Teams virtual meetings, but said physical therapy will be more difficult to offer.
The special education teachers are taking more training to prepare for teaching their students on the new schedule.
After the presentation, Beam thanked the committee for their efforts and going above and beyond to make the 2020-2021 school year safe.
“I want to just publicly thank all of our chairpersons for all of the work they’ve done,” he said. “From the time we get here in the morning, until the time we leave – this is all we’ve done for about thirty days, and I appreciate their help so much.”
Miscellaneous and personnel agenda items will be published in the August 27 edition of The Pocahontas Times.
The next board meeting is Tuesday, September 1, at 6 p.m. at the board of education conference room.