BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County Board of Education held a special meeting Tuesday evening regarding the county’s school re-entry plan, but they were not yet able to agree on a definitive approach.
While COVID-19 data for Upshur County does not indicate community spread, the data is also not as controlled as the countywide advisory board would like it to be, Director of Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Jeff Harvey explained. Therefore, Upshur County Schools will tentatively begin the 2020-2021 school year under “Modified Operations,” as of Tuesday evening.
There have been several revisions to the re-entry plan. Elementary students will go to school from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., whereas Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Buckhannon-Upshur High School will begin instruction at 9 a.m. and go until 3 p.m. The advisory board proposed that all elementary students will have a 5-day school week. After taking a strategic look, it was decided that B-UMS and B-UHS will be placed in cohorts Group A and Group B. Group A will attend school Monday and Tuesday in the building, and Group B will attend the building Thursday and Friday. Dr. Harvey explained, “The more we work with public health officials, if we are diligent with our cleaning efforts, we will be in good shape… When you look into some of the empirical research, we become more comfortable doing elementary school safely because studies that are pretty recent show that children between the ages of 12 and below do not seem to contract or spread as easily as older aged people.” He asserted that the studies exhibit students aged 12 and below involve less movement on a regular basis, plus they cohort on a regular basis due to smaller class and group sizes. Also, with some students doing virtual learning, they feel it is safer for elementary, he explained. Whereas, B-UMS and B-UHS acquire a larger student body and move around more within the building. It was also discussed to have an alternating Wednesday where one group may go three days during one or two weeks out of the month and vice versa.
Board member Katie Loudin expressed her concerns and strongly suggested that elementary students should also be placed in two separate groups and only attend in person twice a week as well. The motion to create cohorts and two-day a week scheduling for elementary students will be on the agenda at the next BOE meeting.
With modified operations, Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis-Stankus may consider a temporary school closure, temporary closure of individual school(s), or cancellation of individual, multiple or all bus runs to clean, disinfect, and contact trace in consultation with local health officials if necessary. Employees through the district would monitor student and staff absenteeism.
Students will be taught and reinforced healthy hygiene in buildings and on buses, such as washing hands properly. Large gatherings would be discouraged and social distancing in cafeterias, libraries and other common areas would be enforced. PPE would be highly encouraged for all staff and students aged 2 and older. All visitors will be encouraged to make an appointment and will be required to wear PPE. Nonessential visitors, volunteers and activities involving external groups or organization to the extent possible would be prohibited. There would be intensified cleaning and disinfecting of high traffic areas, commonly touched surfaces and bathrooms at least every hour and recommended disinfection of buses after each run. Scheduled rotations of heightened cleaning in impacted schools would occur as well.
Regarding child nutrition, they will utilize protocols developed by the office of child nutrition to have meals carried into classrooms by individual students or in smaller cohorts in the cafeteria, separated 6 feet apart or offer grab and go boxed meals delivered to students in the classroom setting. Like the preferred operations option, virtual group events, gatherings or meetings will be encouraged and social distancing of at least 6 feet between people with limited group size will be promoted.
The BOE will implement protocols developed by the Office of Transportation to operate buses, which will require a one or two students per seat rule, PPE and adjustment of delivery times and dismissal times of groups and students. With this modified option, noncritical gatherings will be postponed or canceled. If necessary, they will prohibit the utilization of school facilities by outside groups, gatherings or events. Regarding extra-curricular activities and events, the BOE will follow the WSSAC guidelines. Absences will be addressed with the Upshur County policy/practice. They will accommodate needs of children and personnel who are at documented high-risk with utilization of excused absences and sick days with physician documentation.
It is required that students and personnel wear face coverings on buses and while traveling throughout the school buildings. Social distancing will be exercised as best as possible. “Six feet in all directions is the goal,” Dr. Harvey explained. Lunch shifts will be staggered or meal delivery, as well as limited self-serving options in the cafeteria. Water fountains will be shut off, but they are considering water bottle refill stations, preferably touchless ones. They are suggesting seating charts for school buses, classrooms, cafeteria, and the like. There will be restrictions on playground equipment and keeping student belongings separate. One-way hallways will be implemented, or schedule modifications will occur to dictate hallway traffic. There will potentially be on-site testing offered for personnel. The BOE will be able to provide staff and students with two cloth face masks and a face shield for staff. There will also be disposable masks for visitors and students who have forgotten them.
Custodial staff is responsible for cleaning bathrooms – this is not the teacher’s responsibility. Teachers will, however, be responsible for wiping down items and touching points within the classroom.
Students still have the option of full remote learning in Upshur County. Jody Johnson, Director of Federal Programs and Title I explained that they are investigating the utilization of Upshur County teachers for virtual options. This will allow students to be in contact with teachers from Upshur County; however, they will have to follow the class size mandate, which is up to 23 for kindergarten, up to 25 for first through third grades, and up to the maximum of 28 for fourth grade classes and up. The BOE has hired Jennifer Drake to oversee this program. It will cost $160 per teacher and they are considering providing a stipend for teachers who will take it on. Student and guardians will work with the Virtual Coordinator to make the request to come in or come out of the full-remote learning program. “We want to remain flexible to allow students in or out, regardless of the situation,” Johnson explained.
Dr. Stankus wanted to remind the public that they are mandated to 180 days of instruction by the state, regardless if that occurs virtually or in person. “When we say remote, the kids are still participating in school and teachers are still teaching – if you are in school or at home, you will still be receiving instruction.”
Board member Kristi Wilkerson stated that her preferred option is to implement remote learning for the first 9 weeks, and if that’s not an option, then she suggests half class sizes for 9 weeks. She mentioned that the advisory board and BOE will have the benefit of watching what other states do that are going back to school in August. “Looking at the surveys that family and staff completed, most stated they would be comfortable if we could guarantee physical distancing, and if we are unable to do that, we shouldn’t go along with it. We have to be able to say we are doing everything possible to keep them safe…It is a lot and I don’t think there is a good option at this point,” Wilkerson expressed.
The BOE is not ready to decide anything for certain at this time, according to BOE President Tammy Samples. The BOE unanimously agreed that they need to go back to the drawing board and continue discussions about the safest decision going forward. They are not comfortable returning to school at this time. President Samples explained that teachers are ready to be back in the classroom, but only if they can maintain safety for the children and themselves. “We want our students and teachers back in the classroom, but at what cost?” she questioned.