As W.Va. schools plan for reopening, many of the details are county-by-county

Although state officials are providing guidance about the reopening of West Virginia schools no sooner than Sept. 8, many of the details are being left to county leaders.

State Superintendent Clayton Burch

“We want to make things as flexible as possible for the district leadership. They know what they need, as long as we agree on a few things,” state Superintendent Clayton Burch told state school board members last week.

Those kinds of decisions could include whether to do five days a week in classrooms or blended learning where there are days or hours off-site.

More significant areas of local decisions include school calendars. The aim for most, even with the delay, is to avoid going late into the summer.

Burch discussed plans last week with all 55 county superintendents.

A largely decentralized approach is helpful because each county is under different circumstances, said Howard O’Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association.

Some counties are more populated than others. Some more rural and others more urban. Access to broadband is uneven.

And the coronavirus situation is different from county to county, with hundreds of cases in some and very few in others.

“It is the way to go because it’s not a blanket situation,” O’Cull said. “More populous areas will have more per capita spikes, more per capita cases of coronavirus.

“It also varies in terms of transportation, technology, weather, all those factors. I think it’s a very wise move to say ‘These are the non-negotiables. These are the things you can do or should do, then you make the decision.’ It allows a county board to make a decision, based on the superintendent’s recommendation.”

But O’Cull objected to a federal, top-down approach.

“We’re hearing a lot of chatter from D.C. trying to enter the picture and all that. We would hope to God that doesn’t happen,” he said, contrasting that with the state’s approach so far.

“I think a good path’s been laid out here. It’s in this sort of instance that we don’t normally see the higher level policymakers in our state simply say ‘These are guidelines. You put them in effect based on what you think is good for your community based on input from citizens.’ So I think it’s  a very wise move.”

Speaking on multiple national news programs this morning, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos acknowledged there will have to be some flexibility at the local level but that the expectation from the Trump Administration is that schools will be open.

“What we’re saying is that kids need to be back in school and that school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that,” DeVos said on CNN’s State of the Union.

“There’s going to be exceptions to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. Where there are little flareups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school by school or a case by case basis. There’s ample opportunity to have kids in school. There’s multiple counties across the country that have no cases.”

In West Virginia, County superintendents are thankful for additional preparation time after an announced delay.

Kathy Hypes

“We will use the extra two weeks on making sure our children are safe and healthy when they return, along with our employees,” said Kathy Hypes, the Braxton County superintendent.

She acknowledged the year will bring heightened duties such as the necessity of disinfecting school buses.

“We’re looking at all of our procedures and protocols on sanitizing, disinfecting, looking at the social distancing of children and following some of the CDC guidelines,” she said.

Ryan Saxe

In Cabell County, Superintendent Ryan Saxe agreed the additional time is necessary. He said plans were already under way but still need to be developed.

“We are ready to make changes to the plans we were starting to establish for re-entry in the fall so we can start on Sept. 8,” he said.

Some activities that had been routine will become bigger challenges this year, Saxe acknowledged.

“Cafeterias and delivering lunches in the middle of the day,” he said. “The start-of-school activities — so when students arrive, what are the protocols there to make sure we’re maintaining social distancing. And, of course, just making sure we’re able to adhere to as much of the social distancing guidelines in classrooms as well.”

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