Delegates have lots of questions about the start of school in West Virginia

As a high school civics teacher and a state delegate, Cody Thompson had a prime opportunity to ask a very practical question: How can social distancing be accomplished in an aging school with 28 students in the classroom?

“Is it, like, six feet between students? Can I put them in rows?” Thompson, a Democrat from Randolph County, asked state Superintendent Clayton Burch.

Burch responded in detail, saying the recommended six-foot distance is less important if the students can alternate or face different directions. He said there is modeling available to demonstrate possible classroom layouts.

“I just don’t see how it’s possible for 28,” Thompson responded.

Burch, noting that the students are in high school, suggested one more coping mechanism.

“If they cannot social distance, there’s no reason those students cannot wear a mask,” the superintendent said.

But there were additional layers to Thompson’s question. He asked who would settle such matters if there’s disagreement among the classroom instructor and the principal on what’s an acceptable situation.

Burch suggested looking at county guidelines, then calling the state Department of Education if that fails to provide clarity.

But even at that, Thompson observed, it’s not clear how differences of interpretation are resolved in the very unique circumstances of the coming school year and its target start date of Sept. 8.

“What is social distancing to me may be different than to you,” Thompson said later, during an interview in the state Capitol hallway. “So I think we would like an actual set of specific details and guidelines on what social distancing is in a classroom setting.”

Delegates like Thompson were able to ask state officials about the start of the school year during a Monday afternoon informational session of the House Education Committee.

Members of the committee were spaced apart and wore masks while hearing from Burch and higher education Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker.

The delegates, who come from all walks of life from all over the state, said they have been receiving questions from constituents. They wanted direct information from state education leaders to better address those questions.

“A lot of us felt that we weren’t getting direct information from the state,” said Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, speaking after the session.

“We would hear what the governor was saying; we didn’t have updates from higher ed or K-12. And since we have the deadline of Sept. 8, we wanted to get some questions answered that we could at least bring back to our constituents.”

The two-hour session covered a lot of ground, with both Burch and Tucker acknowledging that much remains unknown about how the school year will go until it’s under way.

For colleges, Tucker acknowledged enrollment declines, but she said it won’t be clear what enrollment really is until a few weeks into the semester.

Tucker noted that fall classes end at Thanksgiving. Ellington asked if there will be a delay for spring.

Tucker said that’s uncertain because so many things affect so many other things. “This isn’t layered like an onion,” she said. “This is the biggest onion I’ve ever seen.”

Masks are required on college campuses. Classes and dorms have been thinned out for social distancing, as many students go virtual. Plexiglass shields have been installed in classrooms.

College students who do attend in classrooms have assigned seating to provide more certainty for contact tracing. “”This way the colleges have a roster of who’s sitting where,” Tucker said.

She expressed concern about students experiencing any further isolation.

“We have a lot of students who are not in school and they are not working,” she said. “I’m very worried about our students becoming disconnected.”

Burch started with similar comments about students who haven’t actually seen their teachers for five months.

He said preparation has involved three major priorities: The first is children’s social, emotional and mental health. “We are not wired to be alone. We don’t know what their home lives are like,” he said.

The second is equity issues in technology and services. He said half of children did not have access to internet. “We knew it was bad; we just didn’t know it was that bad,” he said.

And the third is attending to the student achievement gap.

Delegates said the session was helpful, and they are planning another one with more participation by the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Thompson, for one, said he will have many more to ask.

“I got to ask maybe five or six or my questions,” he said. “I had literally four pages of questions.”

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