Morgan County students return to classrooms in two-day rotations after two months remote learning

by Kate Evans & Kate Shunney

Morgan County School officials last Thursday approved a new plan to return local students to classrooms on a rotating two-day schedule starting this week. Students began classes again yesterday, January 19, after being out of classrooms since before Thanksgiving.

The plan was approved at a January 14 emergency evening meeting which over 60 people attended, most of them virtually.

The partial-week return to classrooms operates under a blended two-day model of in-school instruction, and is approved through February 22.

Parents and families were informed on Friday of the plan through an automated phone call and then email.

County classrooms have been closed to students for nearly two months  due to state dictates and local COVID case levels. Remote learning has continued during that time, though school officials say students, families and teachers are struggling to make it work.

Blended model schedule

In the two-day blended model, students are divided into two groups (set by last name at the middle school/high school level) with the first group going to school on Monday and Tuesday and the second group  attending in-person Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be a virtual instruction day for all students.

In-person students will have two days of in-school learning and three days of virtual learning each week.

Virtual students will continue their remote learning as usual.

Elementary students at Pleasant View, Widmyer and Warm Springs Intermediate School were contacted by teachers about what days they will attend.

Due to the lower number of students at Paw Paw Elementary and the ability to social distance in that school, students there will attend classes in-person four days per week.

For this week only — because of the Monday Martin Luther King Day holiday — the first group of students returned to school yesterday and today and the second group of students will come to school on Thursday, January 21 and Friday, January 22.

Next week, students will go to school on the days set for their grade level or by their last name.

The only exception to the new “return to school” plan is that high school students in Berkeley Springs and Paw Paw will only go to classes if Morgan County is in green, yellow, orange or gold on the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) County Alert System Map prior to the start of the school week.

School Superintendent Kristen Tuttle said in an online statement that the school board decided at the meeting that “putting all of our students back in the schools five days a week without the ability to social distance in the classroom would not be a responsible choice at this time.”

Tuttle called for the whole community’s help to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus so students could return to school fulltime.

Teachers, staff outline worries

At last week’s emergency meeting, Becky Herdering, Widmyer Elementary music teacher and Morgan County American Federation of Teachers president, said that she’s heard a lot of feedback in the last week and conducted an informal survey.

Teachers are scared to go back to school and feel they shouldn’t return until they’ve received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Staying remote until March when all school employees would have their second vaccine dose and when the county was out of the red and orange categories was in the best interests of staff and students.

Herdering said she’d lost several good friends and friends of the family to COVID-19 in the last 8-9 days.  Teachers want to be back with students but they want to be safe.

Teacher Rebecca Smith teaches Head Start/pre-K at Little Learners’ Oakland site.    Social distancing is hard with their kids who are as young as three years old. Teachers are sneezed on and coughed on all the time. The CDC recommends masks on children over age two.

Smith worries about kids passing along COVID-19 to their grandparents/caretakers.  The new COVID-19 variant has been found in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  There are also serious virus complications such as   cardiovascular, respiratory and stroke.

Smith asked the school board to wait to open schools until all local senior citizens and teachers had both vaccine doses.

Widmyer Elementary early childhood classroom assistant teacher (ECCAT) Christen Ambrose, also president of the Morgan County Service Personnel Association, asked for schools to follow CDC guidelines, use the blended model as the best way for social distancing, give time for school employees to all get the COVID-19 vaccine and to follow the DHHR map and stay closed when the county is red or orange.

Superintendent weighs in

Morgan County Schools Superintendent Kristen Tuttle.

Superintendent Tuttle recommended the two-day blended model for returning to school.  She said it’s been the most difficult recommendation she’s had to make.

Tuttle consulted with other superintendents, local leadership and local health officials, researched and talked with parents before deciding.

She said there was an alarming amount of school failures, a reduced number of DHHR referrals, little virus transmission from children to adults and that remote learning is difficult.  She said the number of active COVID-19 cases is decreasing and the county’s transmission rate declining.

Tuttle said there are currently three elementary school COVID cases, one middle school case, no high school cases and no staff cases.    Tuttle felt students and staff could safely return to school using the blended model with half the number of students on buses and in classrooms to achieve the needed social distancing.

Board split on options

School board members arrived at the plan after lengthy discussion and several failed votes on Thursday.

School board president Aaron Close and board member Laura Smith wanted a full-time return, with Close preferring a four-day school week with one day for extra cleaning.  Smith wanted to wait until all staff would be vaccinated. Close thought most school staff would be fully vaccinated by February 22.

Board vice-president Pete Gordon said he’d be uncomfortable and scared of returning to school if he was still teaching and wanted to wait to reopen schools.

Board member Eric Lyda felt the blended model was the best option and wanted them to bring students and staff back safely.

Lyda, a lawyer, also raised the possibility of legal ramifications if the school board varied from guidelines set by the state board and the Governor.  Close thought they could face civil lawsuits from the state education board or others.

Board member John Rowland felt this could go on until fall with the COVID-19 variant and they had to get kids back in school at some point.  It was back to the blended option.

School board members voted, in turn, to reject a four-day blended schedule and the option to just keep schools closed for an additional week this month.

The school board then passed the blended model option for the high schools 5-0 and followed by voting for the blended model for K-8 with a 5-0 vote.

Pre-kindergarten’s school schedule will be determined by Head Start/pre-K officials.

A copy of the blended schedule plan can be located on the Morgan County Schools website.

Face masks for all ages

The school board also approved a move to require face masks for all students, staff and visitors on Morgan County Schools property when appropriate social distancing isn’t possible.

During discussion at last week’s meeting, board member Eric Lyda said it was the school board’s duty to protect teachers. Parents are coming into buildings coughing, sneezing and talking without face masks on, he said.

Lyda made the motion to require masks for all on school property, which includes inside buildings and on school buses.

Lyda felt they needed to send a strong message and require masks since no one wants to change their behavior to improve community COVID-19 transmission.

Board member John Rowland noted that athletes can’t wear masks while running but they do wear face masks while conditioning. Mask wearing for athletes involves compliance with WVSSAC athletics guidelines.

The school board will review their blended model decision at their February 2 and February 16 meetings to see where things stand then.

“We can all agree that there is no substitute for in-person learning, and we all want the students back in the classrooms fulltime as soon as safely possible. We have 2,300 students, 314 full time employees and over 200 additional substitutes, coaches and other part-time staff. We understand that everyone has parents, grandparents, and other family members that they are concerned about, and we take our responsibility for safety very seriously,” Superintendent Tuttle said in her letter to families.