Kanawha County public school classrooms are reopening Monday for the regular five days per week of instruction.
Three weeks ago, the Kanawha Board of Education had expressed hesitancy to restart in-person instruction. The five school board members voted back then to keep classrooms closed until Monday — unless the West Virginia Board of Education ordered them to open earlier.
It did order that, so Kanawha, on Jan. 19, opened classrooms to students for the minimum-required two days per week.
On Monday, the county school system is scheduled to return to full-time in-person instruction, like it was before winter break and the associated national COVID-19 surge. And the Kanawha board isn’t stopping the return.
Ric Cavender, one of the board members who has been more hesitant to resume in-person instruction, said the increasing number of vaccinated school employees made him feel more comfortable. And he said he’s heard teachers and parents say five days per week would be easier on them.
Cavender already sent his oldest son back to in-person school two days per week at Horace Mann Middle, he said.
“This is just a personal account: I would say that I have seen a huge difference in his ability to retain and comprehend with him being in the classroom,” Cavender said.
“I’m also extremely confident in the measures his school has taken: the mask-wearing, the social distancing,” he said. “I feel like they have it under control.”
Parents who want to keep their kids in the online-only options can still do so. But for those who opted for in-person learning, schools will now be fuller on the five days per week schedule than during the two days schedule, when smaller groups of students would alternate days.
A school workers union representative asked the Kanawha board Monday to continue the two-day “blended learning” model for longer, but the board hasn’t chosen that.
Attorneys representing the school systems in Kanawha and Monongalia County — whose county school board also previously opposed reopening classrooms – defended in court last week the state school board’s right to force them to reopen classrooms.
The state board won the initial bout, but the case, filed by unions, may continue yet.
Both the Kanawha and Monongalia school boards, before the state reopening mandate, voted for their preferences to stay with countywide remote learning through the second or third week of February.
In its vote to stay remote, Kanawha’s board included a proviso that it would bow to whatever the state board ordered — so the county school system automatically followed the state mandate that soon came out.
Monongalia’s board didn’t include that caveat in its vote, so it took another vote to reverse course and follow the state.
School worker unions then sued the state board to overturn its order, and thus let county school boards again choose to shutter all their schools until more employees were vaccinated.
The unions named Kanawha and Monongalia as defendants, too, in the suit. The suit also requested that Kanawha not be allowed to itself decide to reopen classrooms until more employees were vaccinated.
The case touched on local versus state power over education. But the Kanawha and Monongalia school system lawyers took the side of the state board, which had overruled their own county boards, rather than taking the union side or offering just a rote defense for following the state board.
“The county board, Kanawha County, believes fully that the WVBE (West Virginia Board of Education) was fully able to mandate what they did,” Kanawha General Counsel Lindsey McIntosh told the judge last week. “And we accepted that as a mandate and acted in accordance with that mandate.”
She said “what the state Department [of Education] has stated, throughout, for every county is that there is no replacement for in-person education. And we fully believe that and I’m sure the teachers believe that as well.”
Attorneys representing Monongalia’s school system titled a whole section in their filing this: “the State Board was authorized to require counties to return to school.” They then quoted cases the state attorneys used to make that point.
They weren’t forced to take the state board’s side, even though they were named as defendants. But Joshua Weishart, a West Virginia University professor who specializes in education law and policy, said the Kanawha and Monongalia attorneys’ positions were “appropriate and defensible.”
“I didn’t see it as something that was a robust argument in favor of state board authority,” Weishart said. “It was basically just repeating what the precedent said.”
“And their lawyers realize that the likelihood of changing that precedent was very low,” he said.
The state board is very powerful under the state constitution.
Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster has already dismissed Monongalia from the case.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the unions that filed the suit, said they’re still discussing whether to move forward with the case.
Weishart, who wasn’t involved in the case, said “I really think that everyone danced around the main issue.” He said that issue was whether the “interests protected by the [constitutional] right to education outweighed” possible negative effects to teachers, which could be as serious as death.
With that framing, he said waiting a few more weeks for vaccinations “seems pretty reasonable.”
McIntosh, the Kanawha lawyer, pushed back against the unions’ effort to tie classroom reopening to projected dates on which school employees may receive their second vaccine dose. That second shot is needed for optimal protection.
She noted more doses weren’t guaranteed to arrive, nor were people guaranteed to actually show up to get the shots.
“What I fear in this situation is that delaying in-person education, again, for an uncertain time period, as we did in the spring, will result in an unnecessarily and prolonged delay,” McIntosh said. “We have the vaccines — or we are hoping to have the vaccines — however, without having them scheduled and without actually having them in person and actually knowing that people are going to show up to receive them, this may be another prolonged delay that we can’t afford, and that our children in Kanawha County Schools and statewide cannot afford either.”
A few days after the hearing, teacher fears over a change to how they must sign up to get vaccines crystallized the fact that the state still hasn’t provided an estimate of when most school workers under 50 will start being vaccinated.
Briana Warner, Kanawha County Schools spokeswoman, said Wednesday that 2,681 Kanawha employees had received their first shot, out of 5,400 total. She said second shots are supposed to start Friday, so almost 1,000 should have both shots by Monday.
But she noted that employees could be getting additional first and second doses through places other than the school system’s clinics.
“If they do not get both doses through a Kanawha County Schools clinic we cannot tell if they were fully vaccinated,” she wrote in an email. “Therefore, hinging a return to in-person instruction on employees being fully vaccinated will not be accurately measurable.”