Three counties agree to state’s return-to-classrooms guidelines, putting all in compliance

Three West Virginia counties that were holdouts on state guidance to return to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic have changed their plans.

Marion, Taylor and Gilmer counties were the last three considered out of compliance with a state requirement to end remote instruction in most cases. Under state pressure, though, each county’s board met over the last couple of days to agree on change.

The state school board is requiring in-person instruction for PreK to 8 no matter how a state map of covid levels shows local virus spread. The state guidance is for high schools to close if the map is red, the highest levels. Counties may opt for hybrid schedules, and parents may still choose virtual learning for their children.

Gilmer County’s board decided on a five-day-a-week return during a Thursday evening meeting.

“We are extremely pleased that our students can return to school,” Gilmer Superintendent Patricia Lowther wrote in an email to MetroNews.

“Our plan that was approved is for 5 days face to face instruction on normal schedule for students Pre-School through 8th grade when the DHHR map is red, orange, gold, yellow, or green.  Students in grades 9-12 will only be remote if the DHHR map is red.  Students in grades 9-12 will be 5 days face to face instruction on normal schedule when the DHHR map is orange, gold, yellow, or green.”

Taylor County’s board voted Thursday evening to return with a blended schedule. That means a group of students attends in-person a couple of days a week while a different group attends on different days. The alternating out-of-classroom days are online learning.

The third county, Marion, unanimously voted today on a hybrid schedule after a two-hour meeting. Marion already used a hybrid schedule throughout the fall, but its plan had been to keep all students home if the map showed the county as red.

So the board’s decision was to comply with the state by agreeing the map would have no effect except at the high school level.

Marion board members heard comments by local teachers union representatives, the local health officer and the state superintendent.

“I don’t like being strong armed by the state. I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t like the feeling of just rolling over,” said Marion board member Donna Costello. But, she said, “If we are honestly to do what is in the best interest of all for the county, I think we have to accept the recommendation.”

Another board member, Thomas Dragich, made similar comments.

“I resent some of the implications, but ever since I’ve been in education safety of everybody has been most important,” Dragich said. “I think we need to go with looking at the big picture for the county. We need to go with the superintendent’s recommendation.”

Teachers union representatives urged the board to stand their ground. Some noted that the vaccine rollout is incomplete and the upcoming schedule remains uncertain. Others pointed toward the unknown effects of emerging variants of the virus.

“All of you have the power to lessen the risk of human tragedy,” said Neil Heard, staff representative for the AFT in Marion County.

Marion County’s health officer, Lloyd White, emphasized precautions such as social distancing. He suggested the blended schedule would allow for that, saying that matters more than what the map of virus spread shows.

“The risk is reduced by social distancing and face covering. If we do those and do those well, it really shouldn’t matter what color we’re in. The color has nothing to do with transmission, but our behavior has everything to do with transmission,” White said.

The state Board of Education still has an emergency meeting scheduled for Tuesday, originally intended to consider any action against counties still out of compliance. Now it appears no such action is likely.

There is still conflict ahead.

Two of the big teachers unions, American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association, have sued over the state’s back to school plan.

They want to slow the return to classrooms until teachers have had opportunities for full vaccination. They’re also challenging the state board’s authority over county systems during a major health crisis.

A hearing on injunctive relief is set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday before Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster.

When the week began, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch counted seven counties out of compliance with state guidelines.

By Wednesday afternoon, at the time of an emergency state school board meeting, there were just three schools out of compliance: Marion, Taylor and Gilmer.

Clayton Burch

Speaking Thursday on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” Burch urged the remaining counties to align with the state policy.

“Our state board has the constitutional as well as moral ground that they must look out for all children,” Burch said.

Burch has consistently said remote learning leaves some students without the support they need. And he has pointed toward conclusions by state health officials that classrooms are comparably safe places.

State education officials have considered a range of actions against counties out of compliance, including possible takeovers, withholding funding or not recognizing remote instruction days and making counties make up those days later.

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice, speaking at a regular briefing on Thursday, expressed some frustration over counties that were still holding out. “I think that’s a mistake. But all these people are grownups,” he said.

The governor had set a goal of returning to classrooms by Jan. 19, which was Tuesday. He aimed frustration at teachers unions that are challenging the state’s back-to-classrooms plan in court.

He took aim at the unions that did not endorse him in last fall’s General Election. But he also made a statement that caused consternation among rank-and-file educators.

“If you don’t want to go to work. If that’s what the problem is, I can’t help that,” Justice said.

Teachers quickly pointed out they have already been at work, often spending long, complicated hours balancing classroom instruction with online instruction.

Justice said he wants students to be in school. But he also expressed some frustration about complications of that goal.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. Our kids need to be back in school,” he said.

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