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BUCKHANNON — Brendan Dowling said he’s working about 40 hours a week at McDonald’s.

He’s 16 and still in high school.

He works during weekdays that could be in-person school days.

But not in Upshur County, where Buckhannon-Upshur High has called students in for just 11 days since the fall semester began Sept. 8. Elementary schoolers have been called in 12 days.

High schoolers said online education is not provided live and they are learning little or nothing.

“The only thing I’m learning in is trade school,” Dowling said, “because I’m actually going in-class.”

Operated by multiple counties, the vocational center at the edge of Buckhannon city limits is the only public school that has regularly kept classrooms open.

Studying to be an electrician, Dowling said he arrives there at 8:20 a.m., returns home to sleep and sometimes completes his online-only academic work before or after his McDonald’s shift.

His friend and fellow high school junior Christian Adams said that “probably, all the way from September to October, I didn’t have anything for like three classes.”

Adams is taking four classes.

“And, right now, I have like 10 assignments due a week,” he said early this month. “It’s just totally inconsistent.”

Even when there are assignments, he said, he isn’t learning.

“We’re not getting an education,” he said. “Most of what I’ve learned is from friends helping me with my schoolwork, not the actual teachers.”

Many counties have had few in-person days

The 3,700-student Upshur school system might seem a world away from 24,700-student Kanawha County.

Kanawha, the state’s most populous district, resumed offering in-person classes five days a week starting Oct. 12. Some schools shut down for stretches, but the district continued offering in-person classes through Dec. 11.

Thirty of West Virginia’s 55 counties opted to offer in-person instruction fewer than five days a week, according to the state Department of Education’s website.

Gov. Jim Justice’s color-coded school reopening map further limited days by shuttering classrooms based on measures of COVID-19’s spread across whole counties, not the spread or lack of it in schools.

State Education Department officials said the agency hasn’t collected information on how much students are learning this fall. The leaders of Upshur’s single public middle school and sole public high school deferred comment on student performance to the district’s central office.

Central office officials said only that, as of Nov. 4, the end of the first quarter, 28% of elementary school students, 25% of middle schoolers and 27% of high schoolers had incomplete grades due to missing assignments.

Insight might come from statewide standardized tests due to be administered in the spring after being canceled last spring.

The statewide map allowed Upshur to offer about 40 in-person school days. But the county’s Board of Education chose to give students only two days of in-person instruction a week, on alternating days for two separate groups of students. That practice reduces the number of people in buildings and reduces the risk of COVID-19 spread.

In mid-November, with the middle and high schools closed because of a lack of teachers, the school board voted to continue remote learning through the end of the year. Under the state map, Upshur classrooms could have been open for about three weeks.

Buckhannon-Upshur High Assistant Principal Tracey Fluharty-Godfrey said students can remain at the school for a full day once a week. She said the district runs buses and feeds students breakfast and lunch. In-person classes otherwise are restricted to special education students and the vocational center.

The Inter-Mountain in Elkins reported that a couple board members suggested Dec. 8 extending the general classroom closure until Jan. 11, considering that COVID-19 might spread during holiday gatherings. They dropped the subject when parents opposed to the move interrupted the proceedings. The board left the room and returned with a sheriff’s deputy.

“We understand the challenges of teaching and learning from home, but we must face the reality that this pandemic has created,” Upshur schools Superintendent Sara Lewis-Stankus said in emailed remarks. “We constantly assess our method of delivery because of these challenges.

“We have been developing a consistent method of teaching and learning throughout. The one constant through all of this is the love that we have for our students and their well-being.”

She said “district leadership is currently working with a teacher group to create synchronous [live] distance learning norms.”

‘I don’t think they’re learning at all’

Sean and Denise Barnett said they worry about their four children, two in fifth grade and two in eighth, struggling with a lack of motivation and structure.

“I feel like they have probably lost a whole year of school from spring to January, you know, because even though they do some work, I don’t think they’re learning at all,” said Denise Barnett, a substitute teacher in Upshur.

“I don’t think anything is the teachers’ fault or the county’s fault,” she said, “and I think that I would not want to be in their shoes making these decisions.”

Students are frustrated.

“For math, they just send you videos to watch and questions to answer that go along with the videos,” said Buckhannon-Upshur High sophomore Carly Barnes, 15. “And watching a video doesn’t help anything — like you can’t ask the video questions. It’s not going to tell you anything.”

Sometimes, the learning is online even when students are in school, students said.

“They sit us in the classroom,” Dowling said, “and they tell you ‘Get on your devices,’ and they tell you to do the same thing you do at home.”

Getting help can be difficult, said freshman Liz Helmick, 15. Students can ask questions during online videochats with teachers, but those happen only once a week per class.

“And it’s only for like 30 minutes,” Helmick said.

Students can message teachers, but “they don’t answer fast,” she said. “A lot of times, they don’t answer at all.”

Students and parents alike recognize the risk in returning to classrooms. Asked whether Upshur should offer more in-person days, Helmick said, “I think they should wait until [the pandemic] calms down a little bit.”

“Because even when we were in school, a lot of people, including the teachers, weren’t really following the rules right,” she said. “Or a lot of them, when they were talking to the students, they took their mask off.”

Adams said he had mixed opinions.

“I’m immunosuppressed so I could get really sick,” he said. “I’m, you know, at-risk, but I personally like in-person school more.”

One of the Barnetts’ children, Ethan, 14, who attends Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School, likened the difficulties of online learning to sports: “You have a football coach, he’s right there when you’re doing a video. It’s like ‘What you’re gonna do, you’re going to show me how to throw a football on video?’ You get more education when you’re doing it right there together, like when the teacher is teaching the class.”

His father, Sean, a physician’s assistant, said, “Everybody is getting the educational equivalent of a participation trophy this year, but not learning all that much.”

Still, he said of school officials, “It’s hard for me to armchair quarterback them because I think that if you go to school for five days a week, you will see increased cases of COVID.”

His wife agreed.

“I don’t know that I’d have done anything different,” she said. “I just wish I knew what to do for my kids to help them.”

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