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Upshur BOE looks at going to a modified school schedule

The Inter-Mountain photo by Amanda Hayes Dr. Jeff Harvey, director of safety and emergency preparedness for Upshur County Schools, presents new information on school re-entry at Tuesday’s special Upshur County Board of Education meeting.

BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools is now considering a modified schedule for all schools based on discussion at this week’s Upshur County Board of Education special meeting.

No decisions were made and the board is not scheduled to meet again until Aug. 11 — three days before teachers report for Apple training and almost a month before the scheduled start of school on Sept. 8.

Following discussion at last week’s board of education meeting, Dr. Jeff Harvey, director of school safety and preparedness, brought back a proposal from the re-entry team that had modified schedules for Buckhannon-Upshur High School and Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School but a five-day week for elementary school students with preventative measures in place.

“Our numbers here in Upshur County are still not indicative of community spread; however, they are also indicative that the situation is not as under control as we would like it to be,” he said.

The secondary school populations would be split into two groups, with one group attending for two or three days and another group attending for two or three days.

Group A would go for three days and Group B would go for three days every other week, using the alternating Wednesday to maximize instruction.

“The more we work with our local public health officials, the more they assure us if we are very diligent with our cleaning and our disinfection that we should be in good shape there,” Harvey said. “We wanted to try to maximize the amount of time we can safely bring students in and get them some in-seat instruction. That may be subject to revision based on how we decide to divide the groups up.”

How the groups would be split was still to be determined, he said. Several good ideas have been brought forth and Harvey said that conversation would continue.

Harvey said the decision to allow elementary to go five days a week is based on recent research.

“When you look at some of the empirical research that is coming out, we become more and comfortable with the ability to do elementary school in-seat safely,” he said.

Studies from June and July 2020 show that children 12 and under do not seem to attract COVID-19 and spread it as much as older populations, he said.

Typically, younger children are the spreaders of upper respiratory infections but COVID-19 differs in that.

Harvey also explained how the percentage of students who have chosen the virtual school enrollment so far played a factor in allowing elementary schools to go five days a week.

As of Monday morning, 915 students chose to enroll in the West Virginia Virtual Schools program where they are still counted as an Upshur County Schools student but will receive instruction at home.

Union Elementary has 31 percent of their student population learning virtually, while Tennerton and Hodgesville have 30 percent, Rock Cave and French Creek 24 percent, Washington District and Buckhannon Academy 21 percent, B-UMS 27 percent and B-UHS 21 percent.

With the reduced numbers, the lack of movement in the building and the fact that the elementary kids cohort on a regular basis, Harvey said that just like with the state counterparts, Upshur County Schools feels more comfortable with five days a week for elementary schools — even at Buckhannon Academy, which is the largest elementary school in the county.

Harvey said another determining factor are the preventative measures, that include the reduced students in the building, cohorting, reducing class changes and other movement, face covering requirements and options for those not able to wear face covering, maximizing social distancing, more diligent cleaning and more.

“The middle school and high school are challenging for two reasons,” he said. “They are a large student body. They also move a lot during the day. Our leadership teams at both schools continue to look at the movement issue.”

Principals are working hard to reconsider existing spaces, staggered lunch shifts and looking at movement throughout the building, such as one-way hallways or one-way stairwells and modifying schedules.

There will be retraining of custodial staff on diligent cleaning, but also on sharing the load of cleaning the building with everyone.

Water fountains will be turned off but all students will receive a water bottle to refill and the school system is looking at water bottle refilling stations.

The salad bars will no longer be self-serve but there will be pre-packaged options.

The team is strongly looking at two bus runs both to and from school to reduce the number of students on buses.

But some board members still expressed concerns with the re-entry plans and what they are hearing from faculty, staff and parents.

Board vice president Katie Loudin said, “I had a call from a high school teacher this week who is very worried that students are going to come to her class without face coverings and that she is going to bring it home to her family member, who is very health compromised by accident.”

Loudin said she shared the concern that the mask mandate needed to be enforced at the schools for age 9 and above.

“If we are going to say that we are going to do something, then our teachers need to be allowed to say ‘you need a face covering,'” she said.

Harvey said that following the governor’s mandate, age 9 and above will be required to wear their masks, and that will need to be consistently enforced at all schools.

All students will be provided with two face coverings and staff members will receive two face masks and a face shield. There will also be disposable masks to hand out in case a student loses or forgets theirs.

Everyone will be allowed to wear their own face coverings as well.

Loudin also addressed the subject of attending five days for elementary schools.

“I appreciate the thoughtfulness in thinking about the spread that created this plan,” she said. “I’m still not so sure that we shouldn’t be discussing this option (modified schedule) at all schools. I understand that families will have major childcare decisions to make if we take that option or we move in that direction.”

Loudin also said a decision needed to be made sooner rather than later.

Harvey said the proposal would be a nine-week commitment at a time for the option the families choose for their students.

“Some of our neighboring counties have opted to do four weeks,” he said. “If we do four, by week two we have to be planning on what week five will be looking at. We now have to be planning for week five and we don’t have data for what happened on day 1. The nine-week window gives us an opportunity to take that data into account. It doesn’t place a certain variable on our families for having to keep reupping everything they have put in place every couple weeks. They can make some decisions over a period of time.”

Harvey acknowledged that the length of time might be a challenge, but for families to be able to put something in place for a block of time and get into a rhythm was the consideration for the nine-week period.

Harvey also said there is an element of how to make it as easy on parents as possible which is why officials looked at splitting the secondary schools and keeping elementary five days a week as well.

Board president Dr. Tammy Samples said she understood Loudin’s point about fourth- and fifth – being required to wear masks and be in the school for five days and the difficulty with social distancing.

“It’s a concern for me,” she said. “She makes a very good point that, especially with those two levels, that we have an issue.”

Harvey said, “We have an issue. We have certainly tried to stay in line with what the state department of ed is recommending. The toolkit that WVDE has sent out talks about keeping folks in groups. They are far less stringent with mask coverings when children are in those groups.

“Some of those resources are maybe even more confident than we are in Upshur County about the ability to go in-person at the elementary level.”

Samples said every employee she has heard from has said they are ready to go back to work but have concerns about how it will work.

One teacher is concerned about having to teach young children extra prevention measures in the wake of COVID-19.

Loudin said another teacher is concerned about having to clean bathrooms.

Board member Kristi Wilkerson asked, “What are we asking our teachers to do cleaning-wise?”

Harvey said teachers are being asked to clean high-touch surfaces in their classrooms, similar to what they do in cold and flu season.

“I know a lot of our personnel do that whenever we are in the height of flu season anyway,” he said. “What we are really asking them to do is just that from day one.”

Loudin also questioned the confusion that would be created by alternating Wednesdays and said faculty were requesting to keep Wednesday for cleaning and for remote prep.

“We are asking all the middle and high to teach in-person and remote and that kind of content generation for the remote environment…personally, I would love to give Wednesday for that reset day, for the deep cleaning and giving our teachers time to work on remote content,” Loudin said.

Harvey said, “Perhaps a prep day could be something that would be very helpful, but I don’t think it mitigates the entire workload to the point that it makes it quote unquote easier, maybe to the level of manageable.”

Superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus said there will still be 180 days of mandated instruction and 200 days of contract employees.

“We can’t give an extra day of planning,” she said. “We are still instructing when we say remote learning. So, if we take Wednesday off, they are still instructing all their students. If you are in school or you are at home, you are still receiving instruction and the state has been very clear about that and the expectation that teachers be in the building.”

Loudin said, “I totally think teachers can be in the building, refreshing areas, working on content, grading… I think it’s the same work day as a fully remote work day.”

Board member Kristi Wilkerson said, “I’m being very honest. My preference would be that we start with remote learning for nine weeks. If that’s not an option, my preference would be that we have half-class sizes for nine weeks and see how it goes. I see a lot in our papers that say that our primary goal is educating students and we are going to try to make that safe and I’m not sure we can be like that in these days. I think our primary goal has to be safety of our students and staff and then figuring out how to educate them in that kind of situation.”

Wilkerson said Upshur County can watch what other states are doing for schools going back in August and look at adjustments.

“If heaven forbid, a staff person contracts the virus or a student does, we have to be able to say that we did everything possible to keep them safe,” she said. “I just want to make sure we are still doing everything possible to keep them safe.

“Even if the governor lifts the face-covering mandate, in my head that is not optional for us. That is something we are supposed to be doing and we need to make sure we are doing that in all cases.”

Wilkerson said she has also had conversations with families demonstrating there “is not yet a belief that they trust that our school system will follow through with these requirements. I think our families need to know that our teachers, our administrators, our staff will make sure these requirements are followed. We can’t be lax in this. This is a lot. I don’t think there is a good option at this point. I welcome all the ideas possible to get there.”

Board member Pat Long said, “Everybody is going to have to make some sacrifices. The people who shouldn’t have to make sacrifices are the students, teachers, custodial staff and bus drivers.”

Loudin said, “I know in-school instruction is better for socio-emotional health. Frankly, this thing could kill someone and I don’t want to be the board that says ‘we tried our best.'”

Stankus said that safety is always the top priority.

“It has to be because we are taking care of other people’s children,” she said. “This is very complex. There is a group of people who are saying that we want schools open. We want to come back to school. We have heard from those parents as well.”

Samples responded, “We want kids back in school. We want teachers back in school. That’s true for all of us. I will just speak for myself, but at what cost?”

The board made no decisions this week but agreed to continue exploring the modified schedule. The next regular meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.

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