Education Secretary DeVos hears challenges, pride in West Virginia return-to-school effort

West Virginia students, teachers, custodians, cooks and parents told the U.S. education secretary that although this has been a school year like no other, they’ve taken pride in working together to overcome challenges.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a listening session today with people in the Jefferson County public school system. DeVos made some comments but mostly asked the people gathered about their experiences this year, often prompting discussion.

“I am excited to hear from all of you how you’ve worked together,” she said. “I am looking forward to listening to you and learning from you and how you did it.”

Jefferson County Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson told DeVos efforts by everyone in the school system have been “unfreakingbelievable.”

“It’s that they care about each other,” Gibson said.

Back-to-school has been a nationwide challenge this year, with DeVos at the center of national debate over how best to do it. She has acknowledged there is no perfect way, but says there are a lot of good ways. 

Over her tenure, DeVos has been known for — and often criticized for — her support for charter schools and school voucher programs. She was in national news today for officially yielding on an effort to direct federal coronavirus funds to private schools.

None of that came up during her interactions with representatives of the Jefferson County school system or during a 5-minute interview with West Virginia reporters.

Instead, DeVos focused on how the unprecedented school year is going. She began by greeting eighth grade science students at Charles Town Middle School over a video teleconferencing system.

“I wish I could come and say hello to you in person and actually shake all your hands, but we’ll do that again some day,” DeVos told the students, emphasizing the need for adjustments such as the use of facial coverings in schools. “This is a great time to learn to be resilient and do the things you need to do with a view to the future.”

DeVos then met in person with almost 30 people from all aspects of the local school system. DeVos and everyone else wore facemasks the entire time, with Gibson’s mask urging “Be Kind.”

Clayton Burch

One of the participants was West Virginia schools Superintendent Clayton Burch, who said he was deeply worried when schools closed because of the pandemic on last March. He grew more confident when he saw the return-to-school plans submitted by counties like Jefferson.

“Our schools are so much more than a building they come to just for academics,” Burch said.

Principal Jennifer Moss of Wildwood Middle School acknowledged apprehension as the school year approached but said students, teachers and administrators were happy to see each other.

“We want noise in the hallway. We want to see the glow in your eyes,” she said.

J.P. Lynch, the band director at Jefferson High School, said the return has been rewarding.

“The kids love being back. I thought we would have to continually have to remind them about the mask. I just told them from the beginning, ‘You don’t wear the mask, we don’t get to see each other.’ It hasn’t been a problem,” he said.

Lynch said he has felt safe because of hard work and sometimes complicated precautions.

“I don’t even feel like I work for a school system any more. I feel like I work for NASA,” Lynch said.  “All of us in education have been really stressed. But if we don’t work the problem, kids don’t come back to school.”

A senior at Washington High School, Brogan Dozier, had worried about how the school year would unfold but became more confident after seeing the county plan for returning.

“I expected social distancing. I expected masks to be a mandate, and I’m lucky enough that they have been,” she said. “I feel safe in my school, and that’s saying a lot because my family took a lot of extra precautions when this covid pandemic broke out.”

Custodian Jimmy Padgett of Washington High School said teachers and students have made it easier to achieve heightened standards for cleanliness. Teachers, he said, are willing to sanitize desks or clean up when they have a spare moment.

“It give us more time to hit the door knobs and the touchpoints and the bathrooms more frequently,” he said. “Students walk up to custodial staff and say thank you. That means a lot to us.”

DeVos thanked school staff like Padgett.

“There is no way the schools could be operating again without the important work that you do,” she said.





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