At the Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting September 22, the board discussed the ever changing guidelines for students to return to school safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Schools returned September 8 with half the students attending in person Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are used to deep clean the facilities as a precaution. Students who did not feel safe returning to school were given the option to attend school virtually online.
After the first two weeks were successful, the board, superintendent Terrence Beam, board office directors and principals discussed the re-entry plan at the meeting to see if changes could be made.
“We cannot supersede the guidelines of six feet apart,” Beam said. “We cannot supersede the guidelines of wearing masks. We are not going to force parents to send their kids back to school if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.
“We want to give the schools latitude in making recommendations to the board,” he continued. “They know their schools best. They know their schedules. They know the number of students they have. They know the size of their classrooms and the movement of the students in the room. They know the climate of the community and how they feel about this.”
The discussion turned to whether or not it would be possible for each school to have the entire student body return for four days of in-person instruction.
Pocahontas County High School principal Joe Riley was unable to attend the meeting but he shared his opinion with Beam who read Riley’s response aloud.
“He wrote back, ‘yes it would be hard for us to social distance,’” Beam said. “‘I would have forty-one classes that we could not social distance. I would also have teaching in the gym. This would mean that we would have to have more folding tables and physical education would not be able to use the gym during lunch. However, students are struggling with the remote learning.’ So that was his response. Mr. Riley is not looking at any changes at the high school at this point.”
Joining the meeting through Zoom, Hillsboro Elementary School principal Rebecca Spencer, Marlinton Middle School principal Nebraska Scotchie, Green Bank Elementary-Middle School principal Julie Shiflet and Marlinton Elementary School principal Phillip Anderson reported on their school’s opinion on four-days of instruction.
Spencer reported that HES could, in fact, have its entire student body return safely.
“Hillsboro is able to do the six foot apart social distancing and follow all the guidelines, and still bring all of our students back,” she said. “The largest class size we have would be fourteen, and we’ve measured and put all of the little desks in the classrooms. We can still get six feet apart from desk to desk. We would not have any problem bringing all of our kids back.”
Scotchie reported that, at this time, MMS cannot social distance with all the students in attendance.
“Unfortunately, we’re in the same boat that Joe Riley is in because we are eating in the cafeteria,” she said. “If we could lift the guidelines of six feet apart in the classrooms and wear masks at all times, I could bring all of my students back, but I’m not able to maintain six feet in the classrooms because I don’t have small desks. If I had desks I could do it.”
Scotchie said several of her classrooms use tables instead of desks which makes it more difficult to socially distance.
Shiflet had the same sentiment, stating that GBEMS is unable to welcome back all students at this time.
“I really need to be cognizant of the whole school approach to consider the families with their childcare when we’re bringing students back,” she said. “I have some classrooms that we absolutely could make this happen with, but I have a lot that we couldn’t safely social distance with the students in the class.
“I talked to my teachers and they are all on board,” she continued. “They do definitely want us to consider how we can pursue avenues to bring all students back, but they’re definitely concerned about the social distancing, and they feel very confident that we cannot safely do that for our students right now. We will definitely do anything that you would like us to look at – we will look at our schedules and make changes.”
Anderson also stated that MES is unable to have the student body return in full.
“We cannot achieve the six foot distancing,” he said. “Staff and kids have adjusted well to the guidelines, and right now I’m looking at quality and quantity and the teachers are able to get a lot more one-on-one instruction and that’s a positive.
“Our teachers want the students back but with the guidelines as they are now, there’s no way that we can achieve that in most of our classrooms,” he continued. “I did measure and walk off the floors and worked the numbers, and we can achieve that in four classrooms right now.”
Anderson said that although four classes could return fully, he felt the same as Shiflet and would prefer to have the entire school return instead of a few classes at a time.
After the discussion, board president Sue Hollandsworth made a motion stating, “to approve the return to a four day week for low functioning special ed students as identified by their teachers and the return of all students to a four day week if the classroom can fit them in and still maintain social distancing. All of this is contingent upon parent and school approval.”
The board unanimously approved the motion.
Hollandsworth added that students are not required to return to a four day week of in-person instruction. The final decision is left up to the parents.
Beam stated that discussion and possible action on the re-entry plan will be placed on each board meeting agenda to allow the board to receive updates and make decisions to alter the plan.
• In his report, Beam shared that West Virginia Wesleyan College donated 24 microscopes to Pocahontas County High School’s science department and Wood County Schools donated welding equipment for the PCHS CTE [Career and Technical Education] department.
Beam added that last Wednesday was West Virginia Schools Service Personnel Day, and he recognized the school system’s service personnel for their continued dedication to the students of Pocahontas County.
• Student representative Jacob Kinnison reported that students are doing well with following the social distancing guidelines at PCHS and trying to keep up morale during this difficult time.
“We’re as happy as can be,” he said. “There are arrows in the hallways and rules we have to follow that we didn’t have to follow in past years, and we’re learning. We’re going along with it. We’re trying our best.
“Senior nights – they’ve been going very well, and we’re very thankful that we get to do that,” he continued. “I would like to thank everyone that’s allowed that to happen. The first home games [for boys and girls soccer and football] were senior nights to recognize the seniors. That means a lot to the seniors and to the players on every team.”
During the hear callers portion of the agenda, two county teachers addressed the board concerning the current school climate.
PCHS agriculture education teacher Erwin Berry presented the board with a suggestion to have teachers cover classes when a teacher is absent instead of hiring a substitute. He provided the board with a written proposal to consider.
Berry said he is concerned with having substitutes entering the schools due to the pandemic, but understands that teachers should not come to school if they are sick. With fellow teachers covering during an absence, teachers may stay home when sick and the students would still be safe from possible exposure to Covid-19.
• GBEMS music teacher Greg Morgan, who is also president of the Pocahontas County Education Association, thanked the board and board staff for providing schools with PPE [personal protective equipment] and cleaning supplies to keep the schools as sanitary as possible.
“I am on a chat group with all the other presidents of all the other counties in the state, and I hear a lot of grief every day,” he said. “When I go home, my phone starts going ‘ding, ding, ding,’ and I get all these messages. There are a lot of teachers out there that are scared to go to school every day. They’re not given enough cleaning supplies or PPE.
“So what I’m here to do is to thank you for giving us PPE and cleaning supplies,” he continued. “I wanted to just come here tonight and thank you for keeping us safe. I can’t wait until it’s over, but thank you. I almost feel ashamed when they’re complaining just to tell them what it’s like here.”
The board will have a special meeting, Tuesday, October 6, at 6 p.m., to review and discuss the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP).
The next board meeting will be a Local School Improvement Council (LSIC) meeting on Tuesday, October 13, at 3:30 p.m. at Pocahontas County High School.