FAIRMONT — The West Virginia Board of Education adopted a motion Wednesday ordering students in grades Pre-K through 8 to return to in-person instruction Jan. 19 on a blended learning model where kids attend school at least two days a week, regardless of whether the county is designated red on the DHHR’s COVID-19 map.
According to the motion, high school students will attend school in-person unless their county is red on the DHHR County Alert System map. In-person instruction may consist of blended learning models for students in grades 9-12.
Despite this order, Mary Jo Thomas, president of the Marion County Board of Education, said Marion County will stick to the plan the board voted on in its Jan. 4 meeting, which has all students continuing remote learning past Jan. 19.
“I think we stick with the plan,” Thomas said. “We stick with our plan, our plan was very thoughtful. We have the blended option, we have the virtual option and we have the distance learning option, those are still in place. Whatever you chose, that’s what you do on Tuesday.”
The Marion County BOE will have its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday evening, and Thomas said there may be further discussion about the attendance plan this semester, and how the State Board of Education’s decision affects Marion County. She said, however, that the safety of the staff and students remains paramount to board members.
“To me, it’s very puzzling why people would say, ‘Ignore the science,’” Thomas said. “We need to consider safety for all. For the students, the faculty, staff and their families. We need to be diligent and we don’t need knee-jerk reactions.”
Marion County School Superintendent Randy Farley said Thursday that the state board’s decision is similar to what Marion County decided on Jan. 4, aside from the change to having students attend school while the county is designated red on the DHHR map.
“When you look at what they stated, basically, they’ve given permission for us to continue what we were doing,” Farley said. “There’s not a whole lot of difference between what they stated and what we were doing. The only thing I see that’s different really between their decision and our board’s decision is that children in grades Pre-K through 8 are to come to school regardless of the color on the map.”
Farley also said he believes the state board made its decision because of the data showing young children are not contracting COVID-19 at the same rate as people in older age groups.
“They’re making a separation between Pre-K through 8 and 9 through 12 at the state because they are following the science of the data, saying that it is safe for that age group to be in school,” Farley said.
As of Wednesday, the DHHR reports that there are 1,142 active cases of COVID-19 in Marion County, and the day saw 14 new confirmed cases. Confirmed cases hit a seven-day peak on Saturday, when the state identified 65 new confirmed cases in Marion County.
Ross Higgins, president of the Marion County Education Association, said the teachers union remains opposed to in-person instruction while the county is red on the map. He said this is for the safety of the teachers, as well as the parents and guardians of the children.
“There is concern among teachers that the state board would nullify the validity of the DHHR map,” Higgins said. “MCEA holds the position that if the county is designated red, that students should not meet in person.”
John Foley, president of the Marion County American Federation of Teachers, echoed Higgins and said the risk for COVID-19 transmission is too high with so many kids being in a classroom.
“AFT thinks we should follow the map for all grade levels when it’s red, it’s just not safe,” Foley said. “When it’s red, the cases are too high, there’s too much going on and we need to keep our teachers and service personnel safe.”
Marion County schools started administering the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to employees last week, starting with employees in the upper age groups. Farley said the school system will be receiving vaccines through the state, to be administered to school personnel who have registered to receive it when it comes to be their turn.
“We’ve had one round only so far,” Farley said. “In that one round, I think we had somewhere close to 252 of our own folks who received the vaccination. There is another group to be done this Friday.
Higgins said he has encouraged teachers who are interested in being vaccinated to register to receive it through the school system. He said that while just about everyone prefers to have school in person, it is still too soon to return to any kind of regular schedule.
“I think all educators would like to be face to face,” Higgins said. “But given the current circumstances, it seems that it’s probably not the safest option at the present time.”
Thomas said she is unsure of how the State Board of Education will respond to counties that do no not follow the motion its members voted on, but that discussion will likely follow the Jan. 19 reopening date. She said the Marion County Board of Education made its decision to keep students remote based on information gathered through surveys, communication with the Marion County Health Department and data available through the DHHR. Taking it all in, she said keeping the county remote still seems to be the best option.
“We knew we would not be popular with the state department with the plan that we chose,” Thomas said. “We thought about that and the wording and thought about it for a long time.”