West Virginia’s county school boards were still deciding as of Friday evening whether to comply with the state Board of Education’s order to reopen classrooms next week.
The state school board approved the mandate Wednesday afternoon. So far, multiple school systems have said they will comply.
But the Jefferson County Board of Education voted Thursday to defy the edict until March 1. The state board hasn’t specified any punishment that counties might face for disobeying it.
“I said, if we don’t have anything to lose, we can go ahead and keep the schools closed so that everybody who wants the vaccine can do that,” said Donna Joy, a Jefferson board member.
“It would give us a couple of weeks more to evaluate, instead of just throwing everybody back into a situation where we are at the worst part of the epidemic, the highest number of deaths and positives,” Joy said. “And now, we have the new strains and we don’t know enough about what’s going on. This would buy us enough time, and we’re not going to be penalized anyway, according to Dr. Gibson.”
She was referring to Jefferson schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson, who didn’t return requests for comment Friday.
Joy said Gibson initially had said the state board could withhold $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds as retribution — which concerned Joy because it would be atop a further significant financial blow from student enrollment decreases.
But Joy said Gibson later said that withholding isn’t likely.
“We can change our mind next week; I just personally need more information,” Joy said. “And we’re thrown this information right before this emergency meeting.”
She said she received 20 to 30 emails from employees before her vote saying they didn’t feel safe returning to in-person instruction. Since the vote, Joy said, she’s gotten at least 100 emails from parents who want their children back in classrooms.
A Jefferson school system spokesman wrote in an email that, “while we all agree that most students learn best in a physical classroom with a trained and caring teacher, we cannot put that ahead of safety.”
Berkeley County, which borders Jefferson in the Eastern Panhandle, also voted to keep classrooms closed after the state board ordered them reopened.
“I thought there was flexibility,” Berkeley board member Pat H. Murphy said. “I’m not sure that we have it.”
A spokesperson for that school system wrote in an email that the vote “was made with the best information available at the time. The new information from the State Board of Education is being reviewed. If we need to reevaluate, we will.”
The Monongalia County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night, the day before the state board’s order, to not reopen classrooms through Feb. 12.
On Thursday, Monongalia schools Superintendent Eddie Campbell sent the state schools superintendent a letter requesting an exemption.
“The [Monongalia] board’s nearly three-hour discussion focused on consistency in student instruction and planning for families, the vaccine rollout, the impact of West Virginia University’s return to live instruction, and the concerns of community members (including both parents and teachers) that were submitted to board members and the administrative staff,” Campbell wrote.
Campbell wrote that he expected the majority of staff to have had both doses of the vaccine by Feb. 12.
While the state board members haven’t specified punishment, they did order the state superintendent to provide them compliance reports on counties starting Monday.
A West Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman wrote in an email that “the Board will then make a decision on whether further action is required. Waivers and other requests will be addressed in similar fashion.”
Campbell said he submitted the letter at his board’s request, while also planning for the school system to reopen classrooms next week, if the exemption is denied.
He said his board would meet next week to vote on whether to reopen classrooms, but he said he had polled his board members after the state board’s order came down.
“I don’t believe, in my conversations with board members, that they have any intention of going against the directive that the state board laid out,” he said.
But Monongalia board member Ron Lytle said that since his board voted on the issue, he hadn’t had any conversations with Campbell or other board members about what to do about the state board order.
“If three out of five board members decide we want to fight it in court,” Lytle said, “that’s what we’re doing.”