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BOE faces tough decisions during pandemic

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer
At the January 5 Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Terrence Beam reported on the ever changing re-entry plan and how the board’s decisions will be contingent on the directives given by Governor Jim Justice and the State Department of Education.

“I want to caution the board to not make any rash decisions tonight,” Beam said. “We have two weeks from today before the students will be coming back. A lot is going to change in the next ten days, and I don’t want us to make a decision on something to find out either it simply won’t work or we’re not allowed to do it.

 “I think the discussion we have is extremely important to see where we are with everyone’s thoughts, but as far as committing to anything, I think it would be a little bit presumptuous for us to do that at this point.”

 As of the meeting, the most recent directive from Justice was that on January 19, all elementary and middle schools would return to five days a week in the schools, and high school students would attend school unless the county is in the red on the Department of Health and Human Resources [DHHR] map.

“This is a tricky thing to read and understand – this is what confuses people,” Beam said, referring to the directive. “Counties may return to four days of in-person instruction with the fifth day reserved for teachers to engage with students via virtual platforms.

 “This is all very fluid right now,” he continued. “We need to not just make a decision today on this – I’m not trying to put it off – I just don’t want to make a wrong decision that we have to go back and retract later.”

Beam said the directive also stated that sports will start March 1, and he is concerned that the students will be spread thin with winter and spring sports at the same time.

In discussing the directive for elementary and middle school students to return regardless of the DHHR map, Beam shared a letter from a Green Bank Elementary-Middle School employee and parent who asked what would happen to parents if they decide to keep their students out of school when the map is orange or red.

“‘As for the four day versus five day schedule, I think that it would be better to keep the four day schedule,’” Beam read aloud. “‘If this schedule is not kept, how will the deep clean priority be met? Additionally, I am willing as a parent to return to two day in-person and three day remote schedule if it means that my daughter gets less exposed. She is in one of the largest classes at Green Bank.’”

The letter continued by asking what precautions will be taken if the “students are forced to return to school.” 

“‘If parents feel it is not safe to send their students to school when the county is under a red or orange designation, what option to parents have?’” Beam read. “‘I believe that reprieve from this pandemic is coming soon. Please allow time for vaccinations to roll out and cases to come down before returning our schools to full capacity.’”

Beam said he spoke to the Pocahontas County Health Department and was informed that it will follow all directives from the Governor, and Beam said the school system must continue to work with the health department through this pandemic.

“They very clearly stated to me that the health department will follow whatever the governor’s guidelines are,” he said. “If any county decides to do anything other than what the governor says, then you can see the possible ramifications if you’re not in lock step with the county health department. Our county health department has been fabulous through this whole process, and we want to continue that working relationship with them.”

Beam said there is a lot of controversy statewide regarding the governor’s directive to return to five days of in-school instruction. He has discussed the issue with several fellow superintendents, as well as board attorney Jason Long, who said several boards of education have decided to disregard the directive and continue to have remote learning as an option.

“Taylor County, Marion County and Upshur County – the boards all voted to ignore the governor’s order and stay remote,” Beam said. “They did that not understanding – in his opinion – that there could be ramifications for those decisions, and that’s why I was saying earlier I don’t want us to make a rash decision and go back and change it.”

Other superintendents said they will follow the governor’s mandate, but are still concerned about gaining local control and being able to make the final decision what should happen in their respective counties.

During the re-entry plan discussion, there were 38 employees and community members attending the meeting through Zoom and several of them voiced their concerns and shared input in regard to the governor’s mandate and what they think is best for the schools. 

Hillsboro Elementary School principal Rebecca Spencer asked the board if it could be changed in the re-entry plan to have the students eat lunch in the cafeteria. As it is now, the teachers have to give up their lunch time to feed the students in the classrooms.

Spencer said she is able to socially distance the students in the cafeteria on three lunch shifts and this will also allow the teachers a lunch break.

The board voted on this portion of the re-entry plan and approved to allow HES students to eat in the cafeteria.

School nurse Jenny Friel gave an update on the COVID-19 vaccines, which will be administered to school employees.

“We are being asked to offer it to our full-time staff that are age fifty and above first,” Friel said. “This is the Moderna vaccine, so after the first dose, you have to wait, I think it’s twenty-eight days for the second dose. Here’s the kicker – you are not fully vaccinated according to the CDC until twenty-one days after that second dose. So we are looking at a timeline that could possibly bring us into the end of February, beginning of March. I feel that we need to look at this when we consider what we’re going to do for our children.”

The first round of vaccines were administered Thursday to full-time employees who are 50 and older. Friel said the rest of the 50 and older individuals who are interested in the vaccine will receive theirs this week. In three weeks, the vaccine will be available for employees under the age of 50. 

Friel added that she is compiling a list of substitutes who are interested in receiving the vaccine, as well.

In regard to the students, Friel said she received information from the State Department of Education giving an explanation as to why it is okay for elementary and middle school students to attend school, while the high school students don’t have to when the map is red.

“The CPS [Child Protective Services] referrals have gone down tremendously because we don’t have staff checking in on those students because we cannot see what’s going on,” she said. “I think they’re very concerned at the state level about our elementary and middle school students who are definitely falling between the cracks.

“I know just here locally – [this week] – there was a very disturbing case that happened that perhaps could’ve been caught if we would have had those students in a school setting,” she continued. “It’s very scary, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep everyone safe.”

Board members gave their opinions on the mandate and what they feel Pocahontas County should do once schools do return to session.

Sam Gibson said he disagreed with sending elementary and middle school students, but not high school students because there are families with children of both age groups and to send one child, but not another did not make sense to him.

Sue Hollandsworth said she would follow the rules set forth by Governor Justice.

The board scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, January 14, at 10 a.m. to discuss the re-entry plan again, and the decisions made by the State Board of Education at its meeting January 13.

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