FAIRMONT — The Marion County Board of Education voted in an emergency meeting Friday to follow policy made by the West Virginia Board of Education and have students on the blended learning model in grades Pre-K through 8 attend school in person, regardless of the county’s designated color on the state COVID-19 map.
The board initially voted on Tuesday to continue having students move to virtual learning when the county went into the red, which indicates a large amount of community COVID-19 cases, but after speaking with Clay Burch, superintendent of West Virginia schools, who joined the emergency meeting Friday, the members of Marion County voted unanimously to follow his recommendation.
When asked why the state made this decision at this point in time, Burch said state and national data about the spread of coronavirus has shown that it is less likely to spread from children in their early teens and under, and considering the safety measures taken by many to help stop the transmission of the virus, schools can put students into the environment safely.
“We know more now about the virus than we did last spring, we know more now about the virus than we did in August when we opened,” Burch said. “It was our health officials who recommended us to come back to in-person, one, because we knew how to make it safe, and secondly, because of the struggles of children.”
Local board quizzed Burch about the state’s decision, as well as the repercussions the county could face should it not follow the state board’s motion. Board Member James Saunders said he believes the state board is strong-arming Marion County by threatening to cut funding from the county should the board not follow state instructions.
“I served on the Marion County Board of Education for over 33 years,” Saunders said. “I have to be honest with you, I’ve never felt more strong armed than I do now.”
Burch said the decision is not to strong arm the county, but to give students the best opportunities and environments to learn in, as their constitutional right.
“I wouldn’t call it strong-arming, I would call it following the constitution and advocating for children’s rights,” Burch said. “That right is the ability to have in-person instruction.”
Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White joined the call to answer questions from the board members. He said keeping students attending school in person separated into two different cohorts is still the best model for them to attend on.
“I still see no reason why the blended model should not be the one that we continue to use,” White said. “It doesn’t really matter what color we are on the map, the fact is that when we do the blended model, we absolutely know we can do it safely. I think the safety of our students, our staff has to be our primary concern.”
Prior to getting into the business of the meeting, the board heard from several union representatives of the county, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Marion County Education Association, as well as Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, who all oppose following the state board’s decision.
“We don’t know everything there is to know about COVID-19,” Lee said. “Why would you put the safety of your educators, your students and everyone’s family at risk.”
Despite a number of questions for both Burch and White, board members eventually said they would follow the state board’s mandate, and have Pre-K through 8 students ignore the COVID-19 map.
Board Vice President Donna Costello said she knows many students are having trouble shifting to and from the blended learning model. That combined with the likelihood of them staying healthy in their schools led her to her decision.
“We do have these students that have not seen any face-to-face, we have parents who are not interested in their kid’s education, and that concerns me,” Costello said. “I don’t like being strong-armed by the state, I don’t like being told what to do, I don’t like the feeling of just rolling over. But if we are honestly to do what is in the best interest of all the county, I am just going to say I think we have to accept the recommendation.”
Board Member Tom Dragich, also said that because the superintendent still has the ability to close a school if COVID begins spreading, he believes the county should follow the state’s recommendation.
“When we look at the whole big picture, I have to go with Mr. Farley’s recommendation,” Dragich said. “I’ve got confidence the schools will be safe, and I think if we run into problems, we do have the option of closing that school down.”
Board member Richard Pellegrin said without the support of the health department, he would not be in favor of the state board’s decision.
“Our chief medical professional seems to advocate that we do the blended instruction and continue to do the blended instruction,” Pellegrin said.
Board President Mary Jo Thomas, too, said she has faith in the recommendations White made, which led her to vote in favor of the state board’s decision.
“I have the utmost confidence in both our superintendent and our director of the health department,” Thomas said. “Mr. Farley and Mr. White have worked tirelessly together to keep us safe and well. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind they will continue to do so.”