Back in the spring, many parents and teachers envisioned a fall start to school that would look more or less normal. To everyone’s disappointment, it is now clear that cannot happen.
Summer has not brought an end to the coronavirus pandemic in West Virginia. In fact, it’s the opposite. In early June, the average number of new cases per day was less than 20. Now it is 120.
As cases have climbed, Our Students First has been speaking to fellow parents and educators across the state via emails, phone calls and large Zoom gatherings. From hundreds of conversations, one thing has become clear: People are concerned about the safety of going back to school.
Our state leads the nation in percentage of children being raised by grandparents, and we have the highest percentage of adults at higher risk of illness if infected by coronavirus, so we must exercise extreme caution in the ways we go about reopening schools.
Our Students First is a grassroots network of parents and educators from across the state. With support and input from several community organizations, we’ve created a platform of recommendations that we believe should be put in place before West Virginia students and educators enter the school buildings this year.
We believe that any return must be guided by science, educator expertise and parental wisdom to know what is needed to support our students and their families. Any return to in-person learning also must have sustainable commitments to funding and support, so that schools not only open safely but remain safe places to learn and work for the entire school year.
For these reasons and more, parents and educators are calling for the 2020-21 school year to begin with remote learning and start in-person instruction only after 14 consecutive days without new cases of COVID-19. Some rural counties might be able to gradually begin in-person instruction by the end of September. Other counties might need to wait until their case numbers have dropped significantly.
A remote start does not mean that students’ needs go unmet. We’re asking county boards to think outside the box and outside the classroom, for example, by utilizing outdoor spaces for back-to-school events, where students can meet their teachers and receive supplies. School staff also could use these events to find out about families’ needs.
Additionally, as the school year begins, teachers could check in with students weekly by phone and create a referral system for serious issues to be sent to counselors and social workers.
Instead of spending CARES Act money on roads, West Virginia should prioritize providing internet access and technology to families in need, child care for families with caregivers who must work and hiring additional staff so that there is a full-time nurse in every school building and more social workers in each county.
Other recommendations include: utilizing Local School Improvement Councils to plan and monitor school reentry; hiring independent agencies to inspect and approve school ventilation systems; providing clear protocols in case of an outbreak of COVID-19; and creating an anonymous call-in line for families and school employees to report concerns.
While addressing the immediate needs before the school year begins, we must concurrently build long-term plans for addressing the learning gaps and inequities we have always known exist. We must combat the structural factors that prevent the end of systemic racism and poverty to ensure that all West Virginia students receive equitable opportunities and education.
We urge all parents, educators and community members to support this course of action and sign our letter. We also invite you to join us on Monday for a day of action to support a safe school reopening. Write a letter to your local school board, show up at a meeting and/or share your concerns on social media using the hashtag #55Safe.
A perfect solution does not exist. A safe one does. Let’s ensure that the coming school year is as successful as possible. Our students, and the safety of their communities, must be first.
View and sign our platform letter at www.ourstudentsfirstwv.org.