This school year has been one for the books. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pocahontas County Board of Education and staff had to weigh the pros and cons of returning to school buildings versus remote learning.
A re-entry committee was formed and plans were made. Plans that have changed several times during the first semester to keep the staff and students safe during an ever changing health climate.
Superintendent Terrence Beam says the semester has gone well considering the curve balls the school system has been thrown this year.
“I think it’s been going really well,” he said. “I’ve been observing in a lot of the classrooms. I didn’t go at the very beginning because I didn’t want to make them any more nervous than they already were.
“I was very impressed with how diligent the teachers and the students were about wearing their masks,” he added. “It was very interesting to see. The little ones were the ones we were worried about keeping their masks on, but the little ones were doing a better job than some of the big ones.”
Beam said there were times when he saw students without their masks on, but as soon as they noticed him, they lifted the masks from their chins and covered their faces.
“I looked at one of the kids that I actually knew pretty well, and I said, ‘what’s the deal with the mask?’ Beam recalled. “And they said, ‘they drive us crazy.’ I said, ‘I know, but do you want to be in school? You’ve got to keep them on.’ She said, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Beam’ and lifted her mask. I told her, ‘I’m just wanting to protect you guys. We want you in school. You need to be with your friends.’”
The school system focused so much on getting the students into the classrooms, Beam said, because while their education is the number one priority, socialization is a close second – something the students can’t get virtually.
“I think people downplay the importance of the social part with these kids – especially the older kids,” he said. “There was a survey or study done and the depression level skyrocketed during this time because kids can’t be with their friends. That’s who they vent to. That’s who they escape their real lives to talk to. They want to get out of the home environment and talk to their friends, and they can’t do that.”
When the pandemic hit West Virginia in March 2020, the 2019-2020 school year was completed through remote learning and the school system had to learn as it went. For the 2020-2021 school year, Beam said they worked together to be better prepared for the sake of the students.
The school year began with in-person classes two days a week and remote learning the other three days. When the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county decreased, the restrictions were loosened and students returned to four days a week.
While the school year began with students returning to the classrooms, they have been on remote learning since Thanksgiving break due to the increase in positive cases of COVID-19 in the county. Going by Governor Jim Justice’s color coded map, if the county is in orange or red, the schools must be closed.
If the county is in gold or yellow on the map, students may return to the classrooms, but Beam said it isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds.
“The biggest obstacle we’re starting to run into now is substitutes,” he said. “If we have school next week, as of today, we are five people short at Hillsboro. There’s only ten of them to start with and that could change in two hours.
“I’m not saying we have five down there that are positive,” Beam clarified. “I’m saying they have to quarantine and they can’t be around anyone because they are waiting for test results or they were around somebody who was positive. That’s what we’re starting to run into.”
Even if the state’s guidelines change and restrictions are lowered, Beam said he still has to keep the staff and students safe, regardless of what the map shows.
“Is it going to help the mindset of people just because they’re moving the guidelines back, if they do?” Beam said. “Is it safer than it was before? I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I’m not a medical person at all. I still have to figure out some way – if we end up being gold or yellow – and are supposed to be in school next week.”
Making these decisions is hard and isn’t done lightly. In a perfect world, the students would be in the classrooms five days a week until the end of the school year, but Beam can’t predict that will be the case.
“Everyone agrees that the kids need to be in school,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in our people here. They have really stepped up, and I said this in the board meeting the other day – our nurses – nurse Jenny [Friel] and the LPNs, and our county health department, have just been rock stars during this.
“It’s nice to see a community working together to try to get through a difficult situation,” he continued. “Our teachers have done a really bang up job. Our custodians and our cooks and our bus drivers and our maintenance guys. I’ve been pleased with the way things have been going.”
It is because of the diligence of the entire staff that, so far, no students have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Students have been tested and quarantined, but not a single one has tested positive.
“I know there have been some who have said we had kids that were positive and it’s spreading,” Beam said. “I can understand why people think that, but it’s just not accurate. We thought we had one early, but it turned out to be negative. The first test was positive, but the big test was negative.”
He may not be able to see the future, but Beam said the regulations will not slack next semester.
“These kids are the most important things in our lives and if we don’t care for them, who’s going to?” he said. “As an adult, it’s your job, your responsibility to take care of the little ones. As an adult, if you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s up to you. You’re old enough to make those decisions. But a six year old doesn’t have the ability to make those decisions, yet.”
Beam chalks up the success of the school year to the staff, students and their families – all of whom were focused on being safe and getting the students back to learning.
There’s a lot of people that think maybe we’re overreacting,” Beam said. “But I’d rather overreact than underreact.
“Ten years from now we’ll look back and say it was worse than we thought or not as bad as we thought.
“We don’t know. “Time will tell.”