Shuttered since March, West Virginia public schools are scheduled to reopen next month, but it’s unclear how that will unfold.
Among the outstanding questions: How long will students spend in actual classrooms? How much online? How will different grade levels operate, or different subjects? What about special education? Who must wear masks? How will social distancing work, or sanitizing? What about students and employees with health concerns?
The answers may be different in different counties. The state has provided little related guidance.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers union state chapter, “because we’re waiting to see what the guidelines really are, and school is going to open up here in a little over a month now in Kanawha County.”
The few tentative recommendations the state Department of Education has released came before the nation started setting daily case record highs last week.
Last last month, the department began requesting public input through surveys, which close Friday.
AFT and other organizations, representing school nurses, school counselors, administrators, county Board of Education members, special education students, and others, have been part of behind-closed-doors planning meetings, even before the surveys.
The case for reopening schools got a boost last week from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The organization said “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Here’s the dilemma across the country — but particularly in West Virginia, which has among the nation’s highest child poverty rates.
Reopening schools will spread COVID-19. That might kill children, and research says it’s far more likely to kill employees and members of the surrounding, often unhealthy, communities.
Yet, schools are critical not just for education, but for socializing and providing free health care, therapy, meals and child care for working parents.
“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation,” the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in its guidance, “making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”
“This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality,” the group said.
About a fourth of West Virginia kids live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census definition.
As of last month, roughly 6,600 West Virginia children were in foster care, the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported.
And in the school year before last, a further 10,500 West Virginia students were homeless, the Education Department said. That definition means they might have been sleeping on family members’ couches or in cars or shelters.
While reopening could help these and other kids, worries persist as COVID-19 case numbers again rise.
Andrew Ashley said he and his wife, both Wood County physical education teachers, aren’t primarily concerned about their own health. Their main worry is their son, Jet.
Ashley said it would be almost impossible to teach PE without violating social distancing recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Or, Jet could get COVID-19 at daycare. Jet already got sick, likely with something other than COVID-19, before West Virginia recorded its first coronavirus case in March.
“He’s under a year old,” Ashley said. “And we started him in daycare back in January, and then he spent the whole month of February sick with like respiratory issues, he was on a nebulizer, antibiotics, and mainly we don’t want to bring it back to him because he’s an infant.”
Monongalia County parent Mary Gunther said “they can’t have in-person school safely in Monongalia County because they have so many cases, it’s on the rise and they’ve got WVU in our backyard and there’s just no way.”
The county health department in Monongalia, among the state’s most-populous counties, has reported a recent increase in cases, with new cases among people who have visited bars and a gym.
West Virginia University announced Thursday that at least 10 of its students, including some who were on one of its Morgantown campuses in the previous week, tested positive. And WVU is planning to reopen more broadly to students in the fall.
Gunther noted people are now allowed to go to churches and other places because Gov. Jim Justice has lifted restrictions, and many people aren’t wearing masks.
She wants masks mandated — something Justice said Thursday he might do, after repeatedly declining to take that step..
“I think they should have all virtual and I think they should make the decision as soon as possible to give the teachers and parents time to prepare for that,” Gunther said, adding that it wouldn’t be fair to “wait until the last minute.”
Online learning could reduce class sizes and the time students and employees spend in proximity to one another. The Education Department has encouraged digital learning for at least some days for students in higher grades, with the other days being for in-person classes.
But it’s hard to tell how remote learning went during the spring shutdown, or whether the anecdotal problems could be avoided next school year.
State education officials encouraged counties to count remote learning as extra credit and said they didn’t track student participation in remote learning. The Education Department didn’t administer the regular annual standardized tests and didn’t “collect standardized measures” of student performance in any other way, a department spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Kanawha, the state’s most populous school system, said Thursday that it doesn’t have remote learning participation or student outcome data.
Educators “did their very best, but it still lacked,” said Albert, the union president, referring to remote learning. “It doesn’t replace the face-to-face, in-person contact.”
The department has suggested county school systems use part of their combined $75 million in COVID-19 federal relief money to improve technology. Counties such as Lincoln have announced plans to buy computers for students for the upcoming school year.
The department plans to spend an additional $9 million to help expand internet access. Common Sense, a nonprofit that says it provides age-based ratings of media and works on other issues, like online safety for kids, has estimated that one in three West Virginia K-12 students lacks high-speed internet access, if one doesn’t count phone online access.
At the end of last school year, Emily Hodovan said she quit her Mercer County teaching job to care for her now 11-year-old son, Eli. He has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare disease that causes epilepsy and mental impairment.
“He will not keep a mask on for anything,” she said.
That was clear as Eli approaches his upcoming surgery to replace batteries in a neural implant to control his seizures. She said the hospital wants him to wear a mask in the waiting room.
“He just like rips it off his face, he doesn’t like it on his face whatsoever,” Hodovan said.
She wants to see the plans for keeping special education classrooms safe.
“The thoughts that have run through my mind are just, my goodness, how will he understand social distancing?” Hodovan said. “And the mask wearing and that sort of thing as far as in the classroom with other children?”
“As long as it’s safe,” Hodovan said, she wants her son to be able to socialize with general education students and receive various therapies that in-person school offers.
The pandemic has affected homeschoolers, too, said Courtney Ostaff, who homeschools her two daughters in Monongalia.
Not only did it shut down the “co-ops,” in which homeschooling parents socialize their children and share the teaching burden, it also cordoned off other activities for her children, she said.
“Every single homeschool parent I know has been impacted,” Ostaff said. “Because the stereotype is like we keep our kids at home in the basement. That’s not how it works — anybody who wants to end up with sane, healthy children takes them out and about.”
She said she considered sending her youngest, Elena, 6, to public school in the upcoming school year, but not now.
“It’s not like I sit down with her every day and say ‘This is the count,’” Ostaff said. “Kids are not stupid, they can pick it up.”
“Now she’s afraid and it just breaks my heart. I can hardly get her in the car just to go for a drive.”
Ostaff also has another vantage point on what’s happening: she said she teaches online classes for private, public and homeschoolers, including child athletes and kids of diplomats.
“Parents with money are signing their kids up for online classes that are of better quality,” she said, than what public schools offered this spring.