Pocahontas County Schools, like many other school systems, had a most unique 2019-2020 school year, and it seems the 2020-2021 year may begin in the same fashion as the last one ended.
Superintendent Terrence Beam has formed a re-entry committee of school employees to work on plans regarding the school year, depending on whether or not Governor Jim Justice allows schools to reconvene or if they will remain closed as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Beam explained that the West Virginia Department of Education has released a list of guidelines – “nine buckets” – symbolizing the nine categories on which to concentrate as schools attempt to return to their facilities in August.
“What I’ve done is taken those nine buckets and I’ve assigned a person from this office or one of the principals to be the chairperson for that committee,” Beam said. “For example, one of the buckets is CTE [Career and Technical Education]. So [Pocahontas County High School principal] Joe Riley will be the head of that committee, and he will be working with his CTE teachers on how they design their program in the event that we have to remote learn again.”
Other “buckets” include transportation, technology, food services, academics, health and wellness and more.
There are so many “what ifs,” Beam said. “The committee hopes to address all of those questions in time for school to start.
“For transportation, the guidelines state two students on a seat with masks, preferably, but if your bus is not capable of holding all your kids with two people per seat, you can do three only if the three live in the same household,” he said.
“With food service – are we going to feed them in the classrooms, are we going to have additional seating so we can adhere to social distancing?” he continued. “The cooks are going to have to wear masks, and the students will not have masks. The idea with elementary kids is to try to keep that core group of kids together all day long rather than have them intermingle with the other student population when we can.”
The two largest “buckets” of the plan will be academics and health and wellness.
For academics, Beam said the plan will have to include remote learning in case they cannot start in the classrooms, but will also include what to do if the students do return.
“At the end of the third nine weeks last year, they said the kids’ grades can’t get any worse than they are now,” Beam said. “Well, now, it will be an entirely different ballgame. All the work that they do will have to be graded because, if they’re remote learning, you have to give them a grade.
“Another issue we’re dealing with is our kids have missed three or four months of school,” he added. “We don’t want to test them the first day they walk in the building, but we have to find out where they are academically. They’re going into a new classroom with a new teacher who does not know that child yet and has no idea where they are academically, so we’re going to be doing some benchmarking early in the process.”
As for health and wellness, Beam said the counselors, social worker, LPNs and school nurse will work together to ensure the students are not only physically healthy, but mentally and emotionally ready to return to the classroom, or to continue to learn from home.
They also have to take visitors and parents into consideration.
“When a parent wants to pick up their child – we don’t want to alienate parents – but we don’t know what those parents have been in contact with, so they’re going to come to the door, ring the bell and we’re going to bring the child to them,” Beam said. “There will be times that we have to have a parent in for a meeting, but we’re going to try to do some of those meetings virtually, as well.”
The committee’s first meeting will be July 9, and Beam said each sub-committee will meet separately after that to complete the school systems plan for the 2020-2021 school year.
“There are just an enormous amount of things to consider,” he said. “It’s not just ‘let’s have them come back and see what happens.’ We have to have a plan that we submit to the board for approval.”
With everything that has to be considered, Beam is hopeful the committee will create a cohesive plan by August 17, the first day of school.
“I want two plans,” he said. “I want a plan if we can bring them back and a plan if they delay the start.”