A group of parents rallied in front of the Raleigh County Board of Education this week, telling members of the Board of Education that they want an option to send their children to school five days each week.
The parents are part of a group called Advocates for West Virginia's Future, which aims to advocate for children to get the best education possible, according to Brooke Robinson, who co-founded the group in September with Abby Honaker, another Beckley parent.
The two started the group of 340 West Virginians on Facebook in response to their shared frustrations about the educational changes that are a result of Covid. Both women said that children were being left behind in the current system and that they were not being offered an adequate education.
"We are here to try to get our kids back in school at least four days, if not five days, a week," Robinson said on Tuesday, as about 15 adults and children waited outside the Raleigh Schools Central Office. "Our children are not getting the education they need.
"They're only in school two days a week," she explained. "The additional three days are usually just loads of homework from what they learned the two days they were there.
"If they continue on that schedule, they're not even going to get half a year's education."
Currently, Raleigh Schools operates on a "blended" model that allows students to attend two days each week for in-class instruction. The rest of the week is spent working on assignments remotely, or from home. Assignments and other information are sent through Schoology, the online communication system that allows teachers to communicate with students and teachers.
Students are given an option of "virtual" learning, which is online school and no class time, but about 8,000 Raleigh students are still attending two days per week. The schedule aims to give teachers and students plenty of space to keep social distance while in class, in hallways and on the bus, school officials have said, as a means of suppressing the spread of the coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that children keep six feet from one another, that their environments are properly sanitized and that they spend as little indoor time within six feet of one another as possible, in an effort to reduce the risk of transmission to one another or others. CDC also recommends that children 2 and older should wear a mask.
The CDC reports that children do not appear to be at higher risk for Covid-19 than adults. While some children and infants have been sick with Covid-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date, according to CDC data. In West Virginia, according to an online database managed by the Department of Health and Human Resources, about one in seven Covid cases – 14.73 percent – has affected people under the age of 20.
Although children in rare cases may develop a severe and often fatal inflammatory disease after being infected by Covid, global health data suggests children make up less than two percent of cases.
"There is not a concern for the children, nor is there a concern for the children to pass it to the adults," said Robinson, who presented data on the coronavirus to board members on Tuesday. "They just don't pass it.
"With teachers, they are more at risk, right now, than they would be if we just went back to school like normal.
"The teachers are passing in the hallways. Studies show the adults pass it to each other more than the children pass it to adults."
Robinson and Honaker both believe that the risk of Covid is not as great as the risks that students are facing while they are not in school. Honaker said that her two older children have started seeing therapists weekly because of the stress of being out of school and maintaining an acceptable level of academic performance with drastically reduced help from professional educators.
Their education is also suffering, said Honaker. She pointed out that West Virginia's education system ranks low in a national study. The Report Card on American Education, produced by the conservative nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), recently ranked the state as 45th in the nation. Honaker said the missed days and lack of teacher instruction will further set back West Virginia students.
The solution is to offer students an option to return full time, she said.
"The quality of education that our children are receiving is far lacking," said Honaker, a Beckley mother of four students ranging from elementary to high school. "We want to be given the option for our children to be given our full education that they deserve, and that we're paying for.
"Right now, the overload in work, the lack across the board, it's not the same," said Honaker. "Some teachers do things one way. Another teacher does something different.
"They're saying everything is coming through Schoology, but that's not the case," she said. "My second-grader has five apps he has to log into, and they're all in a folder."
Her youngest child, who is 9 years old, also has an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) that helps him to compensate for learning challenges as he studies. On Fridays, said Honaker, he is also responsible for logging in to talk to a teacher for 30 minutes.
Honaker works full-time. She said she is "in and out" of her house throughout the day to check on her kids, but her son is responsible for keeping up with all of his assignments, which she said are not well-organized or uniform. If he needs help, Honaker must rely on her older two kids to help him.
The lack of face-to-face instruction from qualified teachers has also caused three of her children to fall behind in their classwork, particularly her second-grader, she said.
"He's falling further and further behind, and we're already struggling to keep him at a level," she said. "He still can't read, and he's 9.
"I understand (the school board) is doing their best. What I'm saying is, it's not working. This is not acceptable, especially with Special Ed. They should have five days a week."
Some students with highly specialized IEPs receive five days per week in school, but the option is not available to those with milder learning delays, such as Honaker's son.
But without the daily instruction from teachers, Honaker said, her son and many others are floundering. At least 60 percent of the parents who have joined the group have students with IEPs, said Honaker.
"The problem is, he has 15 pages of physical pages, Monday through Friday, and he has all of his online work to do, section after section, and remember, he can't read," she said. "I'm having to sit down with him when I get home from work, and I'm a full-time student as well, and trying to do his work with my work, and I have three other children."
One of her sons cries and says the work is too hard and that he misses his friends, she said. Her older children have reported to her that some of their peers are using marijuana and alcohol as a result of stress and not being supervised during the school day.
"One of the biggest concerns for me, and this is where all four of my children fall into, is the mental and emotional stress that this is bringing to them.
"I'm more worried about my child getting addicted to drugs or committing suicide or ending up pregnant, because they're not in school, not having the social interaction, than I am (worried) of Covid," said Honaker. "As a mother, these other things are damaging my children, and I have no say.
"Why do I have no say in that? Why aren't we as parents, whose kids are suffering and struggling, even given the option of four or five days a week?
"That is my concern, and it's the problems I have. This is the first time in history we've quarantined the healthy."
Some students live in homes with grandparents and others who are susceptible to severe and fatal complications if they are infected with Covid.
"The virtual option was created for people like that," said Honaker. "If you are unable to socially distance or not be around somebody who is immune-compromised or high risk, you were given the option to stay home.
"Why are we all being punished for those people? We are protecting them. Who's taking care of us?"
Honaker said she would be willing to sign a waiver to not hold the local school system responsible if her children were infected with the virus.
She would also keep her children away from their grandparents and do Facetime visits if school officials will re-open schools five days a week. She said her own grandmother has said she wants Honaker's children to be back in school, for their own sense of well-being and education.
"We're sacrificing our younger generation for our older generation," said Honaker.
Honaker said that her group was informed that teachers' unions do not want teachers to return to work, due to concerns of Covid.
"We need our teachers," she said. "I love our teachers.
"Teachers need to go back to work, children to go back to school," said Honaker. "If you're uncomfortable, you can change your job, but I don't get the option of not doing my job.
"I have to pay my bills, whether I get Covid or not, I don't get the option to just not do it," she said. "All of my options are being taken away because someone is scared.
"There's no teachers that want to teach our children, but we stood up for you when you wanted a raise. When are you standing up for us?
"Our children need them right now, and they've always needed (teachers), but I've never needed them more than I need them right now.
"Give them all the money. Open our schools," said Honaker.
She said she would prefer for all businesses to be open. If entities must be closed to reduce transmission, Honaker said, she would support the closure of bars and other businesses and keep open schools, which she said are "essential."
Raleigh Schools Superintendent David Price said Thursday that school officials are reviewing the need for the blended model every four to five weeks. On Nov. 6, board members will vote on whether to continue with the blended model or to try a different approach.
The goal when deciding which model to follow is to keep students and teachers safe and to reduce Covid transmission risk in the community. School officials rely on Raleigh County Health Department guidance to make decisions that are in the best interest of the public, he said.
Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday said schools are "safe places," with 18 active school outbreaks.
“For crying out loud, no one wants to do anything to endanger our children,” Justice said. “But if you look at it fairly and mathematically, really today, it is one doggone safe spot to be. We just need to keep up and keep up until we come to a situation where we have zero positive tests at our schools.”
Price noted that Justice had called the schools "safe" but said local school officials will continue relying on local health officials' data and suggestions, with the goal of keeping students and teachers safe.
"We'll continue to monitor," he said on Thursday. "We will continue to make our decisions based on the information we have at hand.
"We're not just diving in and throwing everyone in, all at once," he added. "There are some guidelines and things we have to follow. If those guidelines change, that will influence our decisions, as well."
Price said a West Virginia Department of Education map that color-codes counties based on the number of Covid cases is just one indicator that school officials rely on to make decisions. Raleigh was green on Thursday but has in the recent past been "yellow, flirting with the lower levels of gold," which indicates a higher number of Covid cases.
"We're in touch with our health department every day and in collaboration with them," he said.
Price added that some school closures in cases of Covid being found in a school have been due to a lack of substitute teachers.
"That's something the entire state has been facing," he said.
On Wednesday, West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine announced that student teachers may substitute in state schools in order to gain credits toward their in-class experience.
"It helps them, it helps us, but, again, those numbers are still too low," said Price. "There's not enough of those to go around, but it does offer some relief."