The Perplexing Problem of Public Education During a Pandemic

West Virginia’s approach to public education during the pandemic has been confusing, to say the least.

Last semester, counties followed a weekly map from the state Department of Health and Human Resources to determine whether they could have in-person instruction. The map changed often as the number of Covid-19 cases ebbed and flowed, leaving many counties with off-again-on-again in-person classes.

Governor Justice and State School Superintendent Clayton Burch recently announced that in-person instruction should resume January 19.  High schools would halt in-person instruction if their county is red in the daily DHHR map, but students in the lower grades would remain in school.

But now today the state Board of Education is going to consider a proposal by Board President Miller Hall allowing counties to continue blended models of instruction until all teachers and service workers are vaccinated.  However, Hall’s proposal specifies that counties could not return to remote-only schedules.

Under the blended model, counties stagger days of instruction so fewer students are in the classroom each day.

Also, county school systems have enough autonomy so they can decide for themselves how they want to carry out instruction. For example, the Preston County School Board decided Monday to continue remote learning until at least February 8.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee announced the results of a membership survey showing that 64 percent of those who responded are fearful of returning to the classroom.

When the 3,500 teachers who responded to the survey were asked what it would take for them to feel safe with in-person learning, a plurality (40 percent) said getting school employees vaccinated. The next most common answer (30 percent) was to allow for a hybrid/blended schedule to reduce the number of students in school at once.

All the while, more and more school children are falling farther behind.  Superintendent Burch reported recently that 35-38% of students have a ‘D’ or ‘F’ in a core class this school year, compared to a 5-8% mark last year at this time.

Parents are frustrated. They have been trying for months now to balance their work schedules and child care while also serving as surrogate instructors to try to ensure their children keep up.

There is no easy answer as long as the threat of the virus exists, nor is there necessarily an optimal plan for the entire state.  The most logical way forward is to let the individual counties, through their locally elected school boards and superintendents, decide how to proceed.


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