Essential reporting in volatile times.

Not a Subscriber yet? Click here to take advantage of All access digital limited time offer $13.95 per month EZ Pay.

Interested in Donating? Click #ISupportLocal for more information on supporting local journalism.

West Virginia’s statewide school closure has gone on for more than two weeks now, and the state Department of Education hasn’t yet released clear guidance or clear mandates on whether teachers should grade the work they’re giving students during the shutdown.

Department spokeswoman Christy Day said new guidance won’t be available until late Wednesday or Thursday. In the meantime, interviews with teachers and parents show counties and schools are providing distance education through sending students paper assignments, or through the internet, or both.

A big issue: Children don’t have equal access to computers or the internet in this rural state with a high poverty rate. And some students, particularly those in poverty or receiving special education, require more resources to educate than others.

And research has raised concern about the impact of online education, even when it’s done well.

West Virginia education was already unequal before the schools closed. Now, it may become more so, further complicating how to fairly grade kids who are dealing with vastly different circumstances.

State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch did, more than a week ago, “strongly advise” that schools not expect students to return papers to teachers for grading — advice that, if followed, likely eliminates the possibility of grading kids without internet access.

Day said that advice hasn’t become a mandate yet.

Regarding special education students, the education department has written that “when a school closed due to the COVID-19 response efforts is providing educational services via distance education [offering curriculum, taking attendance and providing grades] to the general student population, the county must ensure that students with disabilities have equal access.”

Sherman High teacher Amy Brown said she provided paper learning packets for students in her regular English courses for the first two weeks of the closure, but she’s been teaching her college-level class online.

She said the students seeking college credit had just begun writing papers when the shutdown began, and they’ve been working on those since.

“If they do not have a laptop, I told them they could hand-write and take a picture and send that to me,” Brown said. She said some students will still have to find Wi-Fi to send that picture via cellphone because much of Boone County doesn’t have cell service.

As for the packets, she’s waiting for guidance on whether they’ll be graded.

She didn’t blame anyone for the lack of direction. She said the situation is fluid and she just expected students would turn in the packets when they returned after the closure, which was initially set to last just two weeks.

But last week, Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced the closure would be extended through April 20. It could last through the end of the school year.

“I didn’t think we would be here at this point,” Brown said.

Regina Larkin, another Sherman High teacher and parent of a senior there, said teachers handed out packets to students, including special education students, from the school buses that also delivered them meals amid the closure.

But she said her son, RJ Cline, who has multiple college-level courses, has been getting assignments and communication from his teachers online. Larkin said she brought computers to two of his friends who don’t have them.

“We live in a small area where we know all these kids,” Larkin said.

She said that even with computers, internet access in Boone is poor.

“We’re not talking about streaming videos,” she said. “We’re talking about literally trying to download a picture.”

Larkin is also having students send her photos to finish out the yearbook.

Joanna Burt-Kinderman, a math instructional coach in Pocahontas County, the state’s least densely populated county, noted Pocahontas not only lacks online connectivity, it lacks a voter-approved excess property tax levy that could help pay to provide students personal computers.

“Not only do we not have connectivity,” Burt-Kinderman said, “our children, many of them, don’t have any devices at home.”

She said teachers have been extraordinary amid this landscape. She said they’ve had to serve students at multiple levels of internet access — from none, to just being able to email, all the way up to being able to video chat.

“We don’t want to hold back the ability to teach online with folks that actually can get in conversation with us in real time, at the same time we have to really be careful that we don’t, you know, exacerbate the equity issues that already exist here,” she said. “So that’s — I don’t have a perfect answer for that, again I’m facilitating people to have hard conversations in a no-win situation and people are really coming up with some cool ideas.”

Burt-Kinderman said there are current conversations about how to provide thorough review of past learning and whether it’s “even OK to move forward with continued instruction when it’s really hard for some kids, if not impossible, for some kids to access that.”

“I think that the issues around equity that are true all the time become really magnified at times like this,” she said.

She said she thinks it’s frustrating to not have really clear guidance on grading statewide, but her understanding is the reason it hasn’t come yet is because current leadership is genuinely, and fortunately, interested in getting the best ideas from the field.

Unlike Pocahontas, Kanawha is among the county school systems that provide many students their own computers. Kanawha, even before the shutdown, provided an iPad tablet computer to every student down to fourth grade, and provided every teacher a MacBook laptop.

Kanawha, the state’s most populous school system, didn’t provide a telephone interview with administrators in charge of its online education. It opted instead to email information.

Despite Kanawha’s technological resources, Melissa Ruddle, the county’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said in an email that “grading is not a priority right now. We are more concerned with rich, meaningful instruction that will keep our kids engaged.”

“Some schools are providing packets to students who do not have internet access,” she wrote.

Also, Kanawha is suggesting students have only two to three hours of work each day.

Jenny Parsons is a stay-at-home mother of two in Kanawha public schools who normally also cares for a 2-year-old child of a Chamberlain Elementary teacher. Her husband, Drew Ross, is currently working from home.

Parsons said that, before the shutdown, their fifth grader at Chamberlain, Lily Ross, already used various online education learning systems like Accelerated Reader and ST Math.

“I think they had a good foundation already, at least at my daughter’s school, to utilize the technology,” Parsons said. “And now they’re just having to use it more.”

Normally, the school system doesn’t let fourth- and fifth-graders take their iPads home, but it has in this case.

“The only book that she brought home was her social studies book,” Parsons said. “They were already using these different sites to do these activities at school — there was no need to send home books.”

She said one of the assignments for Lily’s class has been for children to film themselves reading, and for kids to post comments on one another’s videos.

“You know ‘Great enthusiasm!’ or ‘Way to pause!’ ” Parsons said with a laugh. “Just something positive on someone else’s work, but that way they’re reading and watching each other read ... it just gives them some connection to their friends that way, and some positive reinforcement and feedback.”

Lily is also in gifted education, which is technically part of special education. So Lily has an Individualized Education Plan that specifies advanced education she must receive, like an IEP guarantees a student with a disability education to address that disability.

That gifted education, though, isn’t being provided online, but through paper packets with things like puzzles, riddles and household experiments, Parsons said. She said the gifted education teacher hasn’t yet asked for this work to be returned.

“The assignments are being sent, but it’s a hard thing to replicate when a big part of it is the group think they don’t have access to right now,” she said. She said their pre-kindergartener, Elayna Ross, is also getting paper packets for her education, though that’s supplemented with online video conference storytimes.

JD Lister teaches Psychology, Advanced Placement Psychology and AP Government at Bridgeport High.

This year, he’s having to, from afar, prepare his AP students for the new type of AP exam being made available for them to take at home due to the coronavirus.

These tests, which can grant students college credits if they score high enough, will be 45-minute online exams that ask for free response answers, not multiple choice.

Lister said he’s using the internet to reach his kids.

“Mostly it’s just going to give them as much practice as possible,” Lister said of his approach, “and being online every day to answer questions and give as much feedback as possible. That’s really all we can do right now.”

He said principals, teachers and counselors at his Harrison County school surveyed how many students had internet connection issues, and “we’re lucky that we only had a dozen or so.” None are in his classes.

Still, he said not having face-to-face classes is an obstacle.

“We’re not getting the type of feedback we normally get: when to speed up, when to slow down, when we need to make this more difficult, when we need to pull back, it’s a little tougher,” he said.