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Upshur teachers present concerns

BUCKHANNON – Two Upshur Schools teachers unions sent a letter to the Upshur County Board of Education outlining their concerns after Upshur County went red under the West Virginia DHHR color map a week ago.

Upshur County Schools are in their second week of remote learning and have been orange under the West Virginia Department of Education color COVID map released the past two Saturdays. Both maps use a color system to indicate the COVID-19 status of each county. Orange and red both mean no in-person instruction.

Wilson Harvey is the newly elected president of American Federation of Teachers-Upshur and spoke at Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting and said both AFT-Upshur and West Virginia Education Association-Upshur called an emergency joint meeting after Upshur became red.

“Together, we listened to the concerns of our members,” he said. “The points you see reflected in this letter are the concerns of our members at that time.”

One of the points involved when Upshur County Schools might return to five-day a week in-person instruction.

“Our members were concerned and feel it may not be safe to do that until we have a vaccination that is distributed, a vaccination that is successful,” he said. “We don’t know exactly when that will be.”

Dr. Jeff Harvey, director of school safety and emergency preparedness, told the board stakeholders will begin meeting regularly today to discuss what re-entry will look like for future nine-week periods. The end of the first nine weeks is Nov. 4.

On Tuesday, the day Wilson Harvey gave his report, 19 COVID-19 tests were returned in Upshur County and zero new active cases were reported.

“Our infection rate dropped down below 30 for the first time in days but that still has it in the red in that metric,” Wilson Harvey said.

“In the first letter, we mentioned in order to return to the hybrid model of in-person instruction we have, we requested that not happen until we reach gold in both metrics which would be your infection rate and your percent positivity,” he said.

The infection rate reflects the amount of cases present in the community.

“We climbed at one point to levels that were as high as the state has seen,” he said. “When you have infection rates that are that high, there’s precedent in the state to say that is an inherent danger. There are no easy solutions and every choice you make is going to be wrong in some way,” he said. “When we talked about this in our meeting, we discussed the fact that certainly for our students not being in the building is not ideal. It is also the truth that a lot of the students who are hit hardest by that in their learning are some of the students who may also be most likely to be hit hardest by this virus if they were to contract it, parents were to contract it, grandparents were to contract it.”

The union members also wanted to see more transparency with the numbers that are active in schools with identifiers redacted, according to Wilson Harvey.

“Our members are anxious about active cases they may have come in contact with or just may have been in the building,” he said.

“We have seen precedent in other counties around us that can be released with identifiers redacted,” he said.

An initial release from Upshur County Schools did not name the school where a positive case was reported but subsequent releases have done that.

The unions also wanted more education on why properly wearing masks is important to protect the immune-compromised and elderly such as more direct messaging, according to Wilson Harvey.

“We talk about the importance of educating our community, educating our staff and educating our students on the ‘why’ of masks,” he said. “We have seen fairly good compliance with that. I think sometimes you have folks wearing it below the nose, you have folks who are not doing it properly and that leads to a lot of concerns for our members, not only for themselves but for the community at large. This is something with a relatively high mortality rate for a respiratory virus.”

Board president Dr. Tammy Samples asked about curriculum the messaging could fit into.

Wilson Harvey answered that at the high school it could work in advisory but that could look different at other schools. He also pointed to more signage.

Both unions have the interest of not only their members and the faculty and staff and students but the community at heart, according to Wilson Harvey.

“I would say that was probably one of the largest attended meetings, according to our members, we have had for either union in the past several years because the concern about health and safety – not only of our members but also for our community at large is so significant,” he said.

Dr. Sara Stankus, superintendent, has also met about some of the points in the letter.

Some points in the letter were no longer an issue and Harvey directed his comments towards the remaining points.

Earlier in the meeting, Dr. Jeff Harvey had given an overview of COVID-19 response.

Having school remote for the second week has allowed the school system to contribute to slowing the spread in the community,” he said.

“The highest number of active [school] cases we have had in any one day for our county is 11,” he said. “That is staff and students.”

However, the number of impacts have been more than 11 – up into the 70s with staff and students being quarantined.

Harvey is compiling those numbers and sharing with directors, principals and school nurses daily.

“We have encouraged principals to share that data with their buildings as per their judgment,” he said.

However, Harvey said the numbers change so fast they may be outdated before he hits send on the email.

The state has provided free COVID-19 testing on Oct. 2,5,6,8, 11, 12 and 13 and continues through this week from noon to 4 p.m. each day at Buckhannon-Upshur High School’s football stadium parking lot.

“We have tested approximately 1,380 people,” he said Tuesday night. “The first day we did 322. Today, we did 31.”

On Tuesday, there were 86 actives cases in Upshur County but on Wednesday, the health department stated 93 active cases as of 3 p.m.

“We can always see a little better usage with our PPE and precautionary measures,” he said. “I say that though with the knowledge that it has been better than expected. People are taking it seriously. I think they are taking it a little bit more serious now that we have had the outbreak here locally. There is always an exception case.”

Harvey said the school system needed to stress the importance of staying home if showing symptoms.

“We are imploring our families not to come to school if you are symptomatic and we really need to let our faculty and staff know that it is not a stigma if you need to stay home for symptoms as well,” he said.

Harvey also said it was important to stay in quarantine for 14 days.

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