Wyoming County Board of Education voted 3-2 during a special meeting Tuesday to reopen schools Jan. 19, per Gov. Jim Justice's order, using the same 4-1 model initiated when school began in September.
On a recommendation by Superintendent Deirdre Cline, board members Mike Prichard, Allan Stiltner and Richie Walker voted to return with the 4-1 model at least through March 18, while Mike Davis and Doug Lester wanted to wait until more employees had received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Davis, Lester and Walker participated by phone.
Representatives from the West Virginia Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the county chapter of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, along with one parent, who is also a registered nurse, all provided their concerns about reopening schools now as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to set records in terms of transmission rates, hospitalizations and deaths across the state and the nation.
Justice ordered all elementary and middle school students to return to school Jan. 19, no matter the county's color designation on the state's transmission map. High school students will return as long as the county isn't red, indicating the worst transmission rate, on the map.
Pamela Belcher, who has two children in Herndon Elementary and Middle School and participated by phone, said the vaccine administered to employees over 50 is 97 percent effective only two weeks after the second dose has been administered.
County employees over 50 had the first dose Jan. 8.
She also voiced her concern that elementary and middle schools will not be directed by the state's transmission map.
“Elementary children do get the virus,” she emphasized. “There are several who have it right now.”
The Department of Health and Human Resources online database shows that of the 1,283 cumulative cases in the county so far, 15.68 percent were of children up to the age of 19. Yet the same age bracket has produced just 11.08 percent of all Covid testing in the county.
Belcher is also concerned that children will bring the virus home to grandparents, many of whom already have numerous health issues.
Eighty percent of grandparents in the county are raising their grandchildren, according to officials.
“If we bring this home, we're risking the lives of our families,” Belcher noted.
Area hospital capacity is already stressed with Covid patients, which puts children with asthma, diabetes and other chronic illnesses at further risk if they need to be hospitalized, she said.
“Now, right after Christmas, you're going to throw them back in school?," Belcher said.
“I don't think our students, our teachers should be treated as statistics. Our lives matter,” Belcher said.
She also lauded the teachers for their “above and beyond” efforts in remote learning instruction.
Belcher also said that if it isn't safe for government offices and agencies to be open to the public, then it isn't safe to reopen schools.
Amanda Stolzenfels, the AFT representative, noted that the governor has not held one in-person press conference since the pandemic began.
“We are not safe until upwards of 80 percent of the population has been vaccinated,” Stolzenfels emphasized.
“This virus is raging and is worse now than ever.”
Wyoming County has added 132 confirmed cases of Covid since the first of the year – or an even dozen cases each day on average. In December, the county recorded 451 cases, or about 14.5 cases per day.
The county's infection rate, one of two standards used previously for determining if schools could be open to in-person instruction, was deep in red at 65.15 cases per 100,000 population on a seven-day rolling average. Red begins at 25.0.
On the other hand, the county's daily positive test rate was at 6.94 percent on Tuesday, in orange – one notch down from red on the color-coded measuring stick.
Because Justice allows schools to use the better result from the two qualifying metrics, Wyoming on Tuesday was showing up in orange on the color-coded map. In the governor's revised thinking, only a classification of red would prohibit a school district from holding in-person instruction for high schoolers. Previously, an orange or a red would prohibit any school at any level from conducting in-person classes.
The vaccine is the only way life can return to normal, Stolzenfels said.
“One life lost is too many," she said.
“There are only five people who can ensure the health of people in the county,” Stolzenfels said, adding those five are the board members.
She asked that they reject the proposal to reopen schools.
“I first want to thank this board and the superintendent for always making the safety of the students and employees of the county a priority,” said Mike Hennessey, WVEA organizational development specialist. “Through the pandemic, politics have too often overshadowed that priority at the state level and it seems as if it has happened once again with the governor abruptly and irresponsibly insisting a full return of students to the classrooms five days a week.
“Every person in this room wants to see that happen, but not at the sacrifice of safety for the students and the employees.
“I had a great conversation with Superintendent Cline last week and we both spoke openly about our personal concerns on the problems this pandemic has caused our students. I know how passionate she feels about the students wellbeing and the safety for the employees as I’m sure everyone on this board does as well.
“... The need for an educational setting goes way beyond just daily instruction, but also to the overall mental and physical wellbeing of the students. With that said, it is as important that we do not sacrifice health and safety to do so.”
The governor has disregarded the voice of the teachers in this decision, Hennessey said.
He also cited a survey of Wyoming County Education Association members conducted last week in which 86 percent of the 172 respondents indicated they do not feel safe returning to in-person learning five days a week.
Sixty-four percent said they would feel safe after receiving both doses of the vaccine.
The board has no real choice in reopening schools after the governor ordered students back to in-person instruction. Their only real choice was which model to use, Cline said.
The 4-1 model puts students in the classroom Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesdays used for remote learning and deep cleaning.
Cline said that boards of education and superintendents are asked to make the difficult decisions.
“This decision is unprecedented,” she said, adding that schools officials are being pulled in both directions.
She provided copies of all the correspondence she'd received concerning the issue to board members, noting that the most support was for staying out of school with remote learning.
Cline said the state Board of Education is expected to vote in support of the return to in-person instruction during their meeting today, Jan. 13.
“Whatever the (county) board decides, we will make it a Disney production,” Cline told board members.
“We've never made a decision of this magnitude,” Davis said.
He said he didn't realize the number of school personnel who do not want to return to in-person instruction just yet.
Davis criticized the governor, noting that Justice had led the public to believe county boards of education have local control.
“The governor said we have local control, when we don't,” he emphasized.
“We are the jury for local disputes and disagreements,” Davis said.
Davis added that the board is also the voice of the county population. He wanted to wait at least 13 school days, not calendar days, before the students returned. That would give many of the employees time to receive the second dose of vaccine.
The more people congregate, the more the virus has a chance to survive, Davis emphasized.
“Why are we getting in such a hurry on something so important?” Davis asked.
“... The best avenue is getting kids back safely, getting our teachers back safely. We are close to winning this thing.”
Lester said he agreed with Davis and would feel better if employees had received the second dose before students return.
“We are at the height of this thing right now, and that gives me pause,” Lester said of the pandemic.
Prichard said the virus is raging, but he believes it is from other activities, not the schools.
“The best thing is to get back in school, get an education,” Prichard said.
Stiltner said every survey indicates students are much safer in school.
Walker noted that his job requires him to be in public, that thousands of jobs require people to work in the public.
He said the students have been robbed of this year.
If the kids aren't in school, they are still gathering in church, or playing basketball, or other activities.
If they are back in school where they have to follow the safety guidelines, they are more likely to follow the safety protocols outside of school, Walker said.