School board hears concerns about return to classrooms, considers “blended” schedule

by KATE EVANS

The Morgan County School Board is considering a blended classroom schedule and possible action on the school recovery plan, adopting a local COVID leave policy for work exposure and requiring pre-kindergarten through second grade students to wear face masks.

At the January 5 school board meeting, two teachers expressed their concerns about COVID-19 and students returning to school on January 19 per Governor Justice’s mandate.

Teacher & parent

Jamie Waugh, a Widmyer Elementary first grade teacher and Morgan County parent, spoke of a Utah school COVID-19 outbreak that occurred from lack of mask wearing.  She noted that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that all children should be wearing face masks.

In West Virginia, students in grades pre-K through second grade don’t have to wear them.

Waugh said research shows that children carry large amounts of COVID-19 in their respiratory systems and 22% are likely to contract COVID.  Schools are unable to provide the needed social distancing.

Waugh asked that county schools require all students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade to wear face masks.  If there are medical issues with a child wearing a face mask, Waugh recommended a face shield.

School board vice-president Pete Gordon agreed with Waugh.  He said they need to remain vigilant and have to be very careful.

“We all want kids back in school but we’re going through a spike.  Keep an eye on the color code, “ Gordon advised.

Gordon agreed that kids should wear masks.  He has a granddaughter who’s three years old and who wears a mask everywhere she goes.

Union leader & teacher

Becky Herdering, Widmyer Elementary music teacher and Morgan County American Federation of Teachers president, said she’s heard from many school union members who are concerned about COVID-19 and school reopening.

Herdering stressed that there are two new strains of COVID-19 emerging that seem to be more aggressive.  She felt that there shouldn’t be a blanket age cutoff of age 50+ for COVID-19 vaccines for teachers.  Some have spouses with cancer at home or are more at risk because of their position.

Herdering as a music teacher sees 15 times as many people a week.  She said she can’t get a vaccine now since she won’t be 50 for 14 more months. Herdering asked for vaccines for everyone that wants one.

Herdering noted Marion County is using a two-day blended model where two sets of students rotate for two days and the fifth day is dedicated to virtual students.  She said many teachers prefer this model.

Social distancing, face masks

Herdering also said that key COVID-19 mitigations aren’t being followed in the schools.

They can’t do the social distancing and there isn’t six feet between desks on all sides.  At most, there is three feet between desks, and in some classrooms two feet.

The CDC says everyone older than two years old should be wearing a face mask, Herdering said.  Some bus drivers aren’t enforcing the masks on buses.  Other adults aren’t wearing them with the masks covering their noses and mouths.  She said her four-year old and six-year-old nieces have to wear face masks in Maine.  Herdering asked that every student be required to wear a face mask.

“We’re not asking that schools be closed.  We’re asking to be kept safe,” Herdering said.

Other key points

Herdering also asked for solutions to quarantine pay, and for students to go remote when the county is red.

They want kids back in school but they also want to protect their families, she noted.

Morgan County Schools Superintendent Kristen Tuttle said that the ”over 50” vaccine metric was not a local decision.  School officials had only received around 90 doses in this round of vaccines.  Next round, everyone that wanted a vaccine will get one, Tuttle said.

The two counties that were going to use the two-day instruction model had used it previously and that it’s been hard for them to shift back.

Herdering said that teachers who have to quarantine due to COVID exposure can’t take that hit to their leave time because it’s already allotted for things like maternity leave and medical leave.

Board members

School president Aaron Close said he agreed with the governor that schools needed to be opened. He appreciated the teachers’ concerns but said that kids aren’t improving.  When COVID-19 emerges in schools,  Superintendent Tuttle contains it.

Keeping kids home longer is the wrong move,  Close said. He  thought that going along with the Governor’s plan will remove any legal fallout.

Board member Laura Smith agreed but asked if the board could meet again before their next regular meeting on January 19 to see where things stand.

Board member Eric Lyda was grateful for Waugh’s and Herdering’s comments and their instruction of his children. He’s not as gung-ho about kids going back to school and would request the special meeting to discuss this.

Lyda was in favor of K-2 students wearing masks and wasn’t against going back to school.  He felt they should weigh the pros and cons and let parents and staff know where they stand.  Lyda thought it was unfortunate timing for the Governor’s decree, at the height of the pandemic.

Board vice-president Pete Gordon and board member John Rowland were in favor of the special meeting.  Gordon said he trusts the superintendent’s, principals’ and directors’ judgment and felt the January 19 date for schools reopening was arbitrary when the state is nearly completely red. He had other concerns, too.

School system cases

Superintendent Tuttle gave a PowerPoint presentation provided from the Department of Health and Human Resources on COVID-19 in the schools.

Tuttle said that the CDC recommended that schools stay open.  Mitigation tools included social distancing, hand hygiene, correct and consistent face mask wearing, cleaning and disinfection and contact tracing.

From September through December, Morgan County Schools had 57 staff and students test positive for COVID-19.

Of those 16 staff that tested positive, some  14 of those cases were traced to outside school exposure with two staff being exposed in-school.

Some 35 students tested positive for COVID-19, with 27 students’ virus exposure traced to outside school exposure.  Eight students were exposed to the virus in high school.  Six staff cases were in contracted employees, pre-K or Morgan County Partnership  staff.

Berkeley Springs High School had 23 Covid-19 cases — three staff and 20 students.  The three staff and 15 of the students were  exposed to the virus outside of school where five students were exposed in school.

Concerns

Tuttle said she understood  Waugh’s and Herdering’s concerns and that she also had concerns.

The state is giving them local control and she’ll be able to look at their own data and make the decision as to which schools need to be closed and which ones can stay open.

Tuttle said they’ll be asked to do a school recovery plan similar to the previous school reopening plan and that they’ll be receiving the template soon.

Tuttle believes that “kids need to be in school and that we can keep them safe.”

“If we can’t keep them safe, we’ll close schools,” she said.

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