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Upshur going to remote learning until 2021

BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to go to remote learning until Jan. 4, 2021, after discussing rising COVID-19 case numbers in the county and the uncertainty the community faces each week waiting on the school COVID-19 map.

Upshur County Schools had Buckhannon-Upshur High School and Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School students learning remotely this week due to a lack of substitutes. Elementary students attended based on their blended learning schedule.

On Tuesday after nearly an hour of discussion, board member Pat Long, seconded by board member Kristi Wilkerson, moved to have students attend remotely through Jan. 4, 2021 with accommodations made for special education students and students attending Fred Eberle Technical Center.

Although cases remain high in the county — Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department said there were 76 active cases Tuesday afternoon — numbers presented at Tuesday’s meeting show six active cases and 52 people quarantining in Upshur County Schools.

Dr. Jeff Harvey, director of safety and emergency preparedness, said Union Elementary has three positive cases and four people under quarantine.

Buckhannon-Upshur High School has zero positive cases but eight people in quarantine, and Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School has zero active cases and six people in quarantine. Fred Eberle Technical Center has zero active cases but 13 people in quarantine, but Harvey said this includes not only high school students but adult students.

At French Creek Elementary, zero active cases are reported but seven people are quarantined. Hodgesville Elementary has zero active cases and two people under quarantine. Tennerton Elementary has zero positive cases and three under quarantine. Both Rock Cave and Washington District Elementary have zero active cases and zero people on quarantine.

“We know of one substitute on quarantine,” Harvey said. Additionally, one administrator is positive and one is under quarantine. In the transportation department – the source of an outbreak a few weeks ago – there is one positive case and zero people under quarantine.

Following a report on county COVID-19 numbers and school COVID-19 numbers, board vice president Katie Loudin said, “I think all of us have been watching numbers creep up daily. I’m just going to say it. The DHHR map is useless. If you can be green and red on Sunday, the map doesn’t work.

“I think the people in this room have a much better idea of what is happening in Upshur County than anyone in the state,” she said. “I think that we need to decide what is best for Upshur County.”

Loudin said she was very concerned about the rise in cases and that cold and flu season was approaching and there was a lack of substitute teachers.

“We are all going to be crippled by the substitute list,” she said.

Loudin also pointed to experts predicting a “very dark winter” and said, “we are not even there yet.”

She also said that the map released by the West Virginia Department of Education on Saturday nights forces the school system and parents to make plans at the last minute.

“I want to apologize for the stress that is causing,” she said. “I don’t know how the way forward is except to say that I think it’s time that we start making decisions.”

She said both Nicholas and Wetzel counties had made the decision to go remote even though their map colors said they could be in school.

“Everyone is tired,” she said. “This weekly back and forth…it’s too much.”

Making a decision about what the schools would do until January would bring peace of mind, according to Loudin.

Long, joining in remotely, said Wood County had also made the decision to go remote until January.

Loudin said with the governor’s mandate to have remote learning through Dec. 3 — the week after Thanksgiving, extending remote for two days this week and up until Christmas break would be about three weeks.

“I think three weeks would give teachers a time to reset during Thanksgiving to put good remote plans in place,” she said.

“Frankly, some of the instruction is being compromised because of our lack of substitutes and even with substitutes,” she said.

Loudin said some parents had kept their children home this week even though elementary students were allowed to attend for blended learning – two days a week based on their last name.

“Can our teachers provide better instruction and will we have less absent teachers if we are fully remote?” she said.

Wilkerson said, “I think it boils down to we need to be more proactive in this. We are kind of behind it.

“To say that we know what is happening is Upshur is absolutely true,” she said. “To say this is what is in the best interest of our students and this is what we believe to be the safest course of action, I frankly don’t see the governor arguing with us too much.”

Wilkerson suggested the boards of educations in 55 counties need to speak to the governor about what is needed.

“This is frankly getting crazy,” she said. “Even crazier than it has been – that every Saturday, every Sunday, our families, our teachers have to think about are we going to school, are we not.

“If we have some control of one little piece of this crazy, can we not do something about that and help our families know what to expect for a few more weeks?”

Wilkerson also said the board needed to look at all the pieces, not just the case counts but the available substitutes.

Board president Dr. Tammy Samples pointed to Fred Eberle and students needing a certain amount of hours to be credentialed in their area of study.

“If we are remote, can we send them?” she asked.

Dr. Sara Stankus, superintendent, said that Fred Eberle students have been attending and students with IEP’s have been attending four days a week.

“We are legally bound to do that,” she said.

Stankus also said that almost 26 percent of students do not have internet access to learn remotely.

Stankus said the superintendents in the state had requested that the map come out earlier – even Saturday morning.

“The state department of education says they are not the ones in charge of the map,” she said. “They are informed by the DHHR.”

Board member Dr. Greenbrier Almond said, “As our numbers go up, the hospital rate is going to go up. We are going to reach a crisis there.”

Loudin pointed to the data that shows Upshur’s infection rate was in the red last week.

“I don’t care about the map when our infection rate looks like this,” she said. “The map is useless if we are going to be green and red. I think it’s time we trust our local numbers.”

Long said, “That is why people elected us to make these kinds of decisions.”

Wilkerson added, “If we want our students in school and we want all of our staff and our students safe, we have to encourage our community to do what they need to do. There are folks who are laughing off this mandate. If we had done this a while back, we might not be in this situation.

“We have to encourage folks to do what they are supposed to do, if we want our students in school,” she said.

Almond said, “It’s time to put out a plea for substitute teachers. It’s not the old people who should come back and teach. We may have retired teachers who are excellent. They don’t need to come back. We need some 35-year-old professionals. Maybe they are underemployed. Maybe they thought they would be teachers at some point in time and they gave up on the idea. We need some people to sign up.”

Loudin said, “COVID has certainly exacerbated the teacher shortage.”

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