The Kanawha County Board of Education unanimously approved on Monday starting the fall semester with alternating in-person and online learning days for half of the students at a time, to reduce the number of students in buildings at once because of COVID-19.
But board members also approved switching to the regular five-days-per-week of in-person instruction starting Sept. 28.
Parents who don’t feel comfortable with this may opt for one of two online education routes from the outset of the school year. But one of those paths, the Kanawha virtual school program, which focuses more on self-paced study rather than the live online learning of the other route, might fill up soon.
Whatever parents and families choose, schools Superintendent Tom Williams said that, other than in case-by-case scenarios that teachers should work out with human resources, teachers will be expected to come to schools. The only exception is one branch of online learning, the Kanawha virtual school program, and it was unclear Monday whether teachers could still opt to join that.
The school board never had a substantial public discussion on the possible reentry routes before Monday. The school system didn’t reveal details of its proposals before the afternoon meeting, so the Gazette-Mail is still analyzing them.
If the plan holds — and it might not, depending on the coronavirus’ continued spread and whatever Gov. Jim Justice’s planned announcement on schools Wednesday will be — here is the framework:
The week of Sept. 8 would be “staggered” days as part of an orientation and planning week. Only grades 1, 3, 6, 8 and 11 would show up to schools on Sept. 8. Then, prekindergarten, 2nd, 4th, 7th and 10th would go on Sept. 9. Kindergarten, 5th, 9th and 12th would then go on Sept. 10.
The following two weeks, Sept. 14-25, would have alternating days of in-person and online. Generally, students whose last names are in one half of the alphabet would go for two days and be online for three days, while the other half of the alphabet would go on a different two days and be online three days.
Then, Sept. 28, begins five days of in-person instruction for families who choose it.
Those who opt instead for online learning may skip even the staggered in-person orientation week, although Williams said he would prefer they come to school.
The online options will be hard for families who don’t have sufficient at-home internet access. And Williams suggested his expectations for online learning will be much higher than this past spring — when the West Virginia Department of Education suggested not grading work and very limited teaching per day.
“Attendance will be taken, grades will be given, all assignments will count,” Williams said. “This will not be like last spring. This will be like sitting in the classroom, only not.”
Williams said the school system has applied for a grant to provide families with Wi-Fi hotspots to give them internet at their homes. He also said the county is planning to upgrade the speed of the Wi-FI internet provided by school buses that can be parked in communities. Kanawha already provides computers to students.
The board’s decision came on the same day the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department — which Williams said hasn’t yet reviewed Kanawha’s choice — announced 345 active cases. That’s near the record high.
And the school system wants parents to make their choice for the fall by Aug. 11.
Board member Jim Crawford, expressing worry about five-day in-person instruction, asked Williams on Monday if enough families would opt for online learning to allow for safe social distancing in schools.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Williams said.
Board member Ryan White, in expressing support for an eventual return to five-day, in-person instruction, expressed concern about the continued effects of keeping kids learning only online.
“I think it’s up to 50-60% of those kids that for e-learning, if we have them in any type of e-learning, they won’t get anything out of e-learning,” he said.
“K-3, in particular, if they’re not in school five days a week, they’re not going to learn how to read, and if they don’t learn how to read, they’re not going to be able to be educated the rest of their careers,” he said. “It’s going to affect their entire lives, and I just don’t want to lose a whole generation of kids.”
White also raised concern about students’ mental health issues and a drop in child abuse and neglect reports.
“It’s still going on and it’s much worse,” he said. “It’s just not being reported and there’s nothing being done about it.”
Almost all students will be required to wear face masks, Williams said. Two of the five board members — Crawford and Tracy White — had their noses improperly outside of the masks during the meeting. White, who had hers down for some time, said she had pulled down her mask to speak into a microphone.