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Students return to classrooms

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The Pocahontas County Board of Education held a special meeting January 14 to discuss the new guidelines set forth by the West Virginia Board of Education.

The state board approved the following motions:

• All Pre-K through eighth grade students will resume in-person instruction January 19. Counties are encouraged to resume in-person instruction four or five days per week. Counties have the option to utilize blend instruction models as long as students are provided with at least two days per week in-person instruction.

• High school students will attend school in person unless the county is red on the DHHR County Alert System map. High schools may provide blended learning models. If the county is red on the map on a Saturday, the students will not return to school until the county color changes.

• Parents will continue to have the ability to choose a virtual learning option.

Superintendent Terrence Beam explained to the board what the new guidelines will allow the board to do.

“We have gotten a lot of input and there are people on both sides of the aisle on this issue as to what is best for kids,” Beam said. “I will be very transparent – as I’ve tried to do the whole time I’ve been in this position. Even if it would have been a decision that would have caused some concern, my recommendation was going to be – prior to the state board meeting yesterday – that I thought it would be very common sense to allow our schools to remain on remote at least until we got our employees the first round of vaccines if they asked for it.

“But, that was taken out of our hands yesterday,” he continued. “If you listened to the state board – which I listened to every second of it – they never once brought up that possibility of waiting until the vaccine was given.”

With that said, Beam said his recommendation as for schools to return to four and a half days of instruction, with an early dismissal on Wednesday to allow for deep cleaning of all the schools. Prior to the county turning red on the DHHR map, the schools were operating four days a week with Wednesday off for deep cleaning.

“[Director of maintenance] Ron Hall has assured me that we can deep clean our buildings with a half day off on Wednesday,” Beam said. “We have the employees on Friday to take care of it. [Director of food services Lori Doolittle] has assured me that our lunch program will have to be tweaked a little bit. I think we addressed that at our last board meeting.”

Beam did address the possibility of a blended schedule, with half the student population attending in person school Monday and Tuesday, and the other half attending Thursday and Friday. The other three days the students would attend school remotely.

“We could do the blended for two days on, two days off, but if you go that route – please understand that that can’t be indefinite,” he said. “There’s going to be a time you’re going to have to bring them all back.”

The floor was opened to discussion and board members and school employees shared their opinions.

Board member Sam Gibson suggested the board look into forming a task force to assist the Pocahontas County Health Department with its work in the school system of providing tests and doing contact tracing because the department is bombarded at the moment with all it is doing for the county.

School nurse Jenny Friel, who attended the meeting through Zoom, addressed Gibson and said she felt there was no need to add stress to the school system when she and the school LPNs are already providing assistance.

“I think the plan we have is working,” she said. “Myself, along with the three LPNs – we work very closely with the health department. I assist with all the contact tracing of any school employee. We have a plan in place. It has been working since the beginning.

Gibson thanked Friel for the information, but stated he felt it was better to continue the blended schedule at this time until the county is no longer red.

Friel pointed out that the county went to red while students were on remote learning, so she did not see a correlation between students being in school and the county getting more cases.

“I would just like to say that looking at these numbers, and I’ve been tracing them all throughout the break – the numbers actually continue to spread and our students are not in school.

We have all these guidelines in place to protect our students. We’re not protecting those students who I see roaming the streets of Marlinton with no masks on. We’re not giving them any protection at all. They’re out in the community doing what they like.

“In school, we can remind them ‘put your facial covers on,’” she continued. “I really don’t see any difference in keeping them out of school when the numbers have continued to grow and we have not had our students in school since before Thanksgiving.”

Board president Sue Hollandsworth, who was also attending the meeting through Zoom, added that the students are not only missing out on an education, but social interaction when they are attending school remotely.

“Not only have they lost educationally, but they’ve lost mentally and I mean in depression,” she said. “They’re dealing with so much at such a young age, and I think we need to have them back in school. At least the Pre-K through eighth. That’s what the science says. That’s what our local health department says. That’s what our nurses say.”

Student representative Alan Gibson, through Zoom, shared that he surveyed approximately 50 students and the consensus was that the majority of students did not want to go back to school, but if they had to, they were fine with the four day a week schedule. 

“Students are scared and not just for themselves,” Gibson said. “For their parents, their grandparents – the people who are raising them. The popular talking point that was brought up a lot was health safety.”

There are also concerns about students being exposed to the staff, who live with and interact with individuals who are out in the public and may also contract the virus and spread it to the student.

“We have approximately two hundred staff members in our county working and every one of them for the most part has a spouse which is not in our system, so it’s not going to make any difference whether we’re going to school or not,” treasurer Sherry Radcliff said. “We are going to be faced with COVID in our county, in our state, in our nation.

“Our kids need to be in a school system,” she added. “They are failing. Are we failing them by not putting them in the school?”

“Even kids who don’t have parents in the school system, [their parents] are working,” board member Jarrett McLaughlin said. “That’s putting these kids – if they’re below the age to stay by themselves – they’re going to a daycare. It’s the same as going to school and probably less protected for that matter.”

After a long discussion in which they weighed the pros and cons, the members were ready to vote.

McComb made the motion and McLaughlin seconded that the schools return to in-person instruction four-and-a-half days a week with early dismissal on Wednesday for a deep cleansing of all school buildings.

The motion was passed four-one, with Sam Gibson voting in dissent.

Pre-K through eighth grade students returned to in- person instruction Tuesday, while high school students remained in remote due to the county being red on the DHHR map.

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