Gov. Jim Justice has ordered that all elementary and middle school students will return to the classroom Jan. 19, high schools will return as long as the county isn't designated red on the state's color-coded map, while winter sports and extracurricular activities have been put on hold until March 1.
In the meantime, vaccination efforts will be ramped up for the oldest school employees – those 50 years and older.
“We have got to get our kids back in school,” Justice said during his Dec. 30 press briefing. “During 2020, we learned that Covid-19 transmission rates in our schools during the first semester was 0.02 percent among students and 0.3 percent among staff. Our schools are safe when guidelines are followed.
“We also learned, when we switched learning modes to virtual learning, the outcomes are not good.
“One-third of our students are receiving failing grades in at least one of their core classes.
“The virtual learning models do not work for many students without consistent, live engagement from a teacher,” Justice said.
“Also the DHHR reports that there is a reduction in Child Protective Services referrals by an average of 50 to 54 percent per month,” Justice said. “We've got a bunch of kids that are out there really suffering. So we must get back in school.”
Students in Wyoming County have been participating in remote learning since mid-October due to the rapid spread of the virus in the county.
At the beginning of the school year, the county used a 4-1 model – students stayed home with assignments each Wednesday and personnel reported while the schools were deep cleaned.
That could change Jan. 19. The county Board of Education will decide, during its Jan. 14 meeting, whether to return to five-day weeks or to keep the 4-1 model, according to Deirdre Cline, county schools superintendent.
“The decision to return to school on Jan. 19 was made by the governor,” Cline emphasized, adding he has given county school districts local discretion.
“The differences (when students do return) will be high schools and middle schools will have all classes, every day, not just two days a week as we did in the early fall,” Cline noted.
“Elementary schools will run the same schedule that they used in early fall.
“Our school teams worked very hard and very wisely to create health and safety protocols for each school during our re-entry in the fall,” Cline said. “Those same practices and protocols will be utilized when we come back to in-person instruction.”
Additionally, the county is now providing a personal electronic device, purchased with CARES and other federal program funding, for every student to use at home and at school. The devices can be pre-loaded with assignments that do not need internet access to complete in the event students continue to spend each Wednesday at home.
“Wyoming County is now a fully 'one-to-one' county regarding our technology devices. Every pre-kindergarten through second-grade student will be issued an iPad device and carry case,” Cline said.
“Every third- through 12th-grade student will be issued a Chromebook and carry case. These devices will be used at home and at school.
“During remote learning, teachers and students have grown accustomed to using devices and technology resources, so there should be a natural nexus to using the devices in the in-person classrooms.
“We have utilized stationary and mobile labs for many years and those resources are still available, but now every child will have access to a personal device.
“We are very excited about this growth,” Cline emphasized.
Deep cleaning will occur after school on Wednesday and again on Saturday, and daily during the school week – if the board votes to implement five-day weeks, Cline explained. “We will follow the healthy practices already established in our schools.
“Additionally, all students and staff will wear masks in grades pre-kindergarten through 12, except when eating, of course.”
While Cline is ready to welcome children back to school, she understands that some personnel as well as parents and grandparents, and even some students, do not feel it is safe to re-open schools just yet.
Ultimately the decisions will be made by the governor, the state Department of Education, and the county Board of Education, she explained.
“We are so anxious to welcome children back to school. So much valuable time has passed in terms of social-emotional development and learning.
“Our teachers and families have collaborated and worked extremely hard to provide quality remote learning for children.
“This effort has given success and learning opportunities to children, but has also reinforced that there is no replacement for in-person instruction.
“The effective, in-person classroom is a special and unique place of learning, growth, and positive relationships. Most children need this classroom atmosphere to flourish and reach their full potential,” Cline explained.
Vaccinations will begin for the oldest school employees Friday, Jan. 8, at Wyoming County East High School, based on protocol set by the state Department of Education.
In general, the system's 580 employees want to receive the vaccination, but there is still some anxiety, Cline noted.
“I have not taken the vaccine. I expect to have teachers and staff vaccinated, and then I'll stay toward the end,” Cline said. “I want our front-line employees, who work in direct physical service to children, to be first, then I'll be thrilled to get my 'shot'."
While Cline is keeping an open mind about schools re-opening, she does remain hopeful students can return to a safe, healthy learning environment without any worries at some point.
“For the remainder of this unprecedented year, I would love to see staff and students return to safe, nurturing schools, where best health practices and protocols are the norm, and where everyone in the school is safe, healthy, and happy while children are learning,” Cline emphasized. “We are all going to do our very best to make this goal a reality.”