BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County Board of Education held their first meeting of 2021 Tuesday evening, in which many parents and teachers attended to voice their concerns. After Governor Jim Justice publicized his recommendation to send students back into schools for “in-person learning,” several individuals expressed their opinions on this issue.
Before public comment, updates were reported to the Board from multiple departments.
First, the Board approved the following resignations: Matthew Wamsley as full-time bus operator; Darrick Gould as substitute cook; John Epler as math/STEM teacher at B-UHS due to retirement; and Michael Hinkle as Transitional School teacher due to retirement.
The Board then approved the following employments: Ronnie Miller as substitute teacher; Douglas Bush as substitute teacher; Amy McMillan as Community in Schools Site Facilitator at B-UHS; Lori Smith as Extracurricular Transportation Aide; Connie Brady as substitute secretary; Megan Smith as substitute secretary; and Tara Perry as substitute aide.
Following the approvals, Jeffery Perkins gave a very brief update on Finances, explaining that the processes of 10-99’s and W2’s are underway for tax season.
A technology update was then given by Quinten Oldaker and Kayla Yokum, who explained they are issuing a newsletter for the month of January. This will be used to provide updates and support to the community and family members of students. Newsletters will be available online and printed for distribution. In addition, Oldaker informed the Board that Apple laptops will be awarded to the school’s secretaries and councilors. The Help Desk Team has resolved 83 Help Request tickets, and there are currently zero unresolved claims. Lastly, Yokum and Oldaker discussed, with Katie Loudin, finding a solution to allow members of the public to attend the meeting on video call.
A Safety and Preparedness update was presented to the BOE by Dr. Jeff Harvey who informed members that the COVID-19 vaccination efforts would begin as soon as Friday. Educators are in Phase 1D of the vaccinations, which will include two different doses with a 58-day period in between. Dr. Harvey added that the state assured that vaccinations can be provided to anyone working in the school system who requests it. In addition to vaccination efforts, Dr. Harvey explained that Gov. Justice recommended returning to “in-person” learning in late January. There is also an option for a 4-day school week, with a 2:00 p.m. dismissal.
This update essentially created the grounds for several public comments made by parents and teachers regarding the decision to send kids back to schools this month.
The first comment came from Mary Miller, a retired science teacher of 43 years. She returned to teaching after learning about the state’s shortage of science teachers during the pandemic. Miller stated, “I don’t think, until you leave, do you realize how wonderful the students are, the parents, the people that live here.” She added, “What we know, we know the virus is dangerous, we know it has killed 354,000 people.” Miller noted that even though remote-learning is not working as planned, “Students are learning perseverance, patience, trouble-shooting and problem-solving.” She suggested that the BOE let the data determine the timeline on returning the kids. High volume of positive test results should yield low volume of in-person attendance, according to Miller, while low volume of positive test results should result in high volume of in-person attendance. She explained, “With 50 people, there is an 88% chance someone will be infected.”
Following, Social and Emotional Learning Specialist Wilson Harvey provided his insight after commending and recognizing everyone for persevering through these unique struggles. “The pandemic has been very challenging. If you look, we’re at pace to exceed, as a state, 2,000 cumulative deaths this month. In December, we were well below 1,000. So that has been a massive increase of recent times, that has come with an influx of new cases.” He added, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccinations.” Harvey urged the Board to avoid complete re-entry before the vaccinations have been administered, and before they have had time to take effect. “One in 65 West Virginians is currently diagnosed with COVID… We do know there are less cases detected in youth, but we don’t know that they are being tested in the same amount as other West Virginians.” Harvey presented a few options to the BOE, wrapping up his comment with a final suggestion—to follow the state of Ohio in returning students to school on March 1, after the vaccinations have had a chance to take action. “I trust that you all will make the decision that is safest for our community.”
Parent Jennifer Westfall shared her concerns with the Board. After confirming statistics with Dr. Harvey, Westfall asked, “We’re all just kind of wondering, what are we waiting for?” She suggested, “We would like to request the board to approve the 4 days a week. I know that we’re happy with the 4 days a week and we’re happy with the 2:00 dismissal. We do appreciate our teachers, and we do think that our teachers need time; they need that extra day to deal with virtual students. We don’t want our teachers overworked. We love our teachers.”
Next, parent Ariel Guady addressed her concerns. “I just want to start by saying we are not against teachers. I know that’s what a lot of teachers feel like. I am grateful for my kid’s teachers; they are amazing.” She continued, “We need to figure out when we’re getting kids back. We’re hearing this, we’re hearing that, and we’re changing it. I get that everyone is scared; I’m personally scared. I have a 5-month-old at home. I have a grandma that works daily with the public… We’re trying here for the sake of our children. We all want them to get the proper education that they deserve. My kids are not thriving with this. They’re confused… We’re the only voices that our children have. So, I will continuously be loud for my kids because, who else is going to do it for them?”
Parent Chester Cutright explained, “I work with explosives and radiation every day of my life. Every day that I go to work, I am exposed to explosives and radiation. That is my occupational hazard. I knew it going in. One day I may wake up and say, ‘This is too much risk.’” Cutright continued, speculating how everyone is going to be exposed to the virus at some point, much like flu season each year. “At some point in time, we have to look at the numbers and say, ‘You know what? This is an occupational hazard.’ If I wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to take this risk anymore,’ then I can absolutely do that. But them I’m going to go home, and I not going to have that job anymore.” Sympathizing, he clarified, “I don’t want any of the teachers to think I want them to get sick in any way, shape or form. I’m just saying that not all of us have the comforts of being able to sit at home and say, ‘This is too much risk,’ and still drawing full salary. At some point we have to understand that this is going to be an occupational hazard for the rest of our lives. It’s not going to go away. The only thing that is going to happen is the vaccine.” Cutright concluded, “I’d really love for our county to pick this back up and get our kids back in school. I understand the risk, but let’s please just look at the numbers and look at the counties around us that are doing it and having success with it. Let make this happen—please.”
Parent Patrick Pasterick followed with, “I’m a nurse. I’ve been studying this for months. I am actively dealing with COVID patients on a weekly basis. A lot of things I want to put out to you guys as humans—as people. First off, the CDC just put up an article this week… 6% of all COVID deaths are only because of COVID.” Pasterick expressed frustration with certain activities continuing while others, like school, have ceased. “We’re going to keep closing down businesses, we’re going to keep closing schools. All we’re going to have left is people sitting at their house, scared to death, waiting to die,” he cautioned.
Mother and teacher, Anne Osborne, presented her ideals to the Board. “I am a teacher here in Upshur County and I have two kids at home. Both of them are fully remote, my choice, because I have a son that has an immune deficiency… All of us sitting here, we all want our kids back in school. There’s not a teacher, there’s not an aide, there’s not a bus driver, there’s not a cook that will tell you, ‘We want our kids out of school.’ We know that being in school is the best thing for them. But when it’s safe for them. Because you’re telling us all of these numbers, but one child dying is one too many.”
The second comment, read by Kristi Wilkerson, was from Deidra Casto, fifth grade teacher at Union Elementary. Casto explained her perceived dangers of sending students back at full-capacity, 4 or 5 days a week from experience. “Even with a hybrid schedule and a very conscientious class, it was impossible for them to keep their masks on all day. They simply forget to put it back on after taking a drink or eating. I also cannot possibly physically distance 20+ students in my room, even at WVDOE’s recommended 3 ft., and minimalizing furniture in my room.” Casto also shared her concern that she may be expected to continue remote instruction at the same time she is teaching in-person. “It’s simply impossible, especially if you want to have a work/life balance. My family has made many sacrifices to continue to keep us safe and healthy, as many have. I have not been able to see my own parents since February 2020, because I pose a risk of exposure from school. We have missed holidays, birthdays, and milestones because I am not willing to sacrifice my family members or myself to this virus.”
Following these comments, President Tammy Samples opened the phone lines for call-in public comments. Christy Flannigan delivered her message over the phone to all those attending. “We are at the peak of a pandemic in West Virginia and Upshur County, there’s no denying that. I am completely baffled by the lack of common sense being used to make decisions about the physical wellbeing of so many people, children, and adults alike,” she stated. “A vaccine is so close to helping many in our community. As a teacher, I want both rounds of the vaccine, and time for them to be effective before students come back to the classroom. I’m allowed to want that for myself, my family, my colleagues, and students… My family comes before you, before my job, before my student’s need for an in-person academic instruction. All the other things about students that people want to pin on teachers, like children who are hungry, in danger, unhappy, or don’t have to support systems in place to make remote learning happen—are not on me. Those responsibilities have been taken on by schools, by teachers and all school staff, yes. But those are not our burdens to bear. Those are family, community, societal and government burdens to bear.” Flannigan concluded, “During a global pandemic, teaching remotely should be enough to expect from my job as a teacher. Are all precautions in place that could be to return to school safely? The answer is no.”
Jenna Enke also phoned into the meeting to share her thoughts. As a registered nurse, Enke encouraged the BOE to listen to healthcare workers who have witnessed the front lines of the virus. “If we place every single precaution in place as far as social distancing, masks, hand hygiene—if we put all of that in place, you guys get all the teachers vaccinated—how many of your teachers are going to refuse that vaccine, but still say they are scared to work? How many of those teachers are going to say that the risk still isn’t worth it?” Enke asked, “At what point are we going to say, ‘We’ve got to take ahold of this, put the proper precautions in place, and send these children to school?”
After call-in comments, Board members had the opportunity to make a statement.
Katie Loudin encouraged the community to come together. “I see and hear a lot of pain tonight. I can only speak for myself; I’m not sleeping. I know you’re all not sleeping. I do take the responsibilities of being up here really seriously, and I hear you. I am very torn, and I don’t know what the way forward is. Certainly, there is no way forward, that I can see, that will make everyone happy, but I hope that we can compromise,” she stated.
Wilkerson wrapped up the comments by expressing her appreciation to all who attended and reminded the attendees that the Board is working hard to understand and compromise with everyone’s perspective. “There’s not an hour, a day, a minute that goes by that I am not trying to consider what is best for our students, our employees, our community,” she expressed.
The next regular meeting of The Board of Education will be held Tuesday, January 19, 6:00 p.m. at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School.