BUCKHANNON — Union Elementary School hosted an Upshur County Board of Education meeting that will likely be remembered for years to come. Emotions were high from beginning to end Tuesday evening, as angry parents filled the seats to voice concerns for their children’s academic future.
Prior to the meeting, parents stood outside of UES holding signs that expressed their feelings regarding the BOE’s previous decision to go fully remote. This decision came on November 18 and was effective until January 4. The children of Upshur County have only seen the classroom a handful of times since the beginning of the school year.
One sign held by parent Megan Westfall stated, “NO REMOTE ‘LEARNING’ Our kids deserve better! We need a choice! 5 days a week!!!” Another sign held by concerned parent Ariel Guady stated, “We (heart) Teachers, Let Them TEACH!”
Westfall’s son is a kindergartener at Union Elementary School. She explained to The Record Delta,“We are here because our children deserve to be in school and we should have the choice for them to attend five days a week, in person.” Westfall is a full-time working parent, and she expressed that this situation has put a significant burden on working parents like herself. “I come home from a full day of work, I make dinner, and then we are immediately into remote learning – which exceeds my son’s bedtime.” She continued, “We are concerned we are going to have a generation of kids that are going to be left behind.”
Another parent mentioned, “I am also a working mother and it is very difficult to give our kids a proper education, especially when we work full time. Even for my friends that are stay-at-home moms, it is difficult to give them the education their kid deserves … You know, they’re not trained with the skills and the tools to teach these children. We’re not teachers. We are just parents, trying to get our kid’s the best education they deserve.”
Guady commented, “It’s not just about that, it is about the kid’s mental health as well. I have a sixth grader and third grader, and they are not taking this very well – they need friends, they need to be socialized. They need their teachers in person... It’s not the teachers’ fault. A lot of them are doing awesome and keeping up, and they are trying. But this is one of the biggest years she has, starting sixth grade, and it just got ripped away from her.”
A parent of a junior at Buckhannon-Upshur High School explained her daughter’s struggles by saying, “You can tell this is putting a lot of stress on her. She gets so mad. It is just really hard on the kids too, not just the parents.”
Shortly after the meeting began, through a motion by BOE Vice President Katie Loudin, delegations were moved to the front of the list. During this time, parents were allowed a specific amount of time for delegations, then the BOE could ask questions, and all speakers were required to uphold proper decorum and refrain from profanity or disorderly conduct, per instruction by BOE President Tammy Samples.
Each speaker/parent had a similar message – kids deserve the opportunity to receive in-person instruction, and as parents, they wanted the choice to send their kids back to school.
Parent Shanna Collins began by asking for in-person, quality education. She explained that they want children in school five days a week and that this should be a choice. She explained that she is very aware it is difficult, but she believes choices the BOE has made are failing and affecting children negatively. “You need to find a better option than fully remote,” she stated. If the problem is a shortage of teachers and subs, Collins proposed allowing students to sit in the cafeteria with volunteers or aids. If the problem is lack of bus drives, she encouraged the BOE to find an alternative plan or allow parents the choice of self-transporting. She concluded by thanking the BOE for the opportunity to speak and said she was hopeful they will make the right decision.
Her fifth-grade student at Rock Cave Elementary, Leah Collins said she believes that students should have the opportunity of four days a week, in-person instruction. The student explained, “Virtual learning isn’t giving the best opportunity…We take advantage of adults and convince them to give us answers. Teachers are better at teaching than parents. A lot of us miss our teachers and friends; they are all family.”
Parent Brandon Weese prepared an informative statement to present to the BOE. Weese said he wanted to know where the decision to go fully remote came from and inquired, “Is it a teacher shortage? Why is it happening? Who is responsible for hiring and recruiting teachers? Our kids need school.” According to Weese, “West Virginia ranks 44 out of 55 nationally in K-12. This is unacceptable, before pre-COVID. What is the solution to these numbers when they come back?” Weese mentioned his concern with where the students are going to be after experiencing such inconsistencies with virtual learning. According to him, approximately 26 percent of kids under the age of 18, are below poverty level, based on the 2019 census. “For many kids, school is their safe place – a refuge from their home life. We do not know the situations in each home in this county, but we must still believe that some kids are better off at school than in their home. Some are even facing abuse; not just physical, but mental as well. Schools in Upshur Co. are the number one reporting agency for Child Protective Services. With no school being held, no reports are being made. There are kids in this county right now, that are at home without water, without electricity, without heat, and yes, even though we have the meal program, without food. Really, the only meal these kids were getting were from school lunches and breakfasts. We cannot even imagine some of the abuse these kids are facing today. Even now as I speak, in their house, both mentally and physically, kids are being abused. We have no way to know what’s going on, because they have no safe outlet at this point. If they do not get the proper education, they are doomed to be a product of their society and continue the cycle,” Weese expressed.
Aside from poverty and neglect, Weese mentioned that to his knowledge, no one actually recommended the closing of in-person learning for any COVID-related situation. He referenced Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director and Head of the Whitehouse COVID-19 Task Force, who according to Weese, stated on December 1 that he encouraged all schools to remain open, and said children and teachers were safe to continue in-person education. He also referenced the CDC, doctors, scientists, and even the West Virginia BOE, explaining none of these organizations have urged the closing of in-person learning. Weese went on to reference a statement allegedly made during one of Governor Justice’s press briefings, encouraging other counties to not follow Upshur County’s lead.
Weese expressed, “With that being said, we are presently spending $7,000 a week in fuel to run buses with kids who have IEPs to continue in-person instruction. All 48 bus runs are being made with fewer kids getting picked up than can fill up one bus. But kids who don’t have IEPs are not permitted to go to school four days a week. Is this not a form of discrimination?” Weese also asked the BOE how it is safe for students with an IEP to attend school, but unsafe for his student who does not have an IEP.
“As a taxpayer, I would like to request an audit of the Upshur County School System and the BOE’s handling of the budget. Where is the money going? The citizens want to know.” Weese concluded, “You’re not serving us as a Board, and should follow the lead of all neighboring counties that are continuing to do their education, in person. As a concerned parent, I refuse to believe that Sheetz, Walmart and other retail stores and restaurants can stay open and we cannot find a solution for our children to stay in school, for in-person learning and maintain the proper education they deserve.”
After discussion and update from Dr. Jeff Harvey regarding the Safety and Preparedness update, Board member Pat Long explained that he was concerned over the rise in cases after Thanksgiving, and proposed their new start time to begin January 11, rather than the original decision of January 4. He felt the later date would give two weeks beyond Christmas and New Year’s. Loudin agreed with Long and expressed her serious concerns over people traveling and being in large groups after the Holidays, then returning to school shortly after. Loudin said she wanted to reach a decision during the meeting to give families enough notice, rather than it being last minute. Although Loudin realized her opinion was not the most popular among meeting attendees, she explained that she had received multiple concerns and expressed that the concerns of the people in attendance weren’t the only concerns from within the community.
A teacher and parent, Shanah Carpenter urged BOE members to simply follow the State Education Map and close schools as needed. She explained that the BOE is speculating on what might happen but pleaded with them with to give the community a chance to use the precautions they have laid out. “Kids and families are suffering, and you are not listening to us,” she asserted.
This dialogue created chaos in the gymnasium, as many parents started talking loudly over the Board members and refused to listen to President Sample’s orders to halt comments. Samples ordered a recess indefinitely, until proper authorities arrived to keep the meeting in order. During the recess, the BOE members exited the gymnasium, while parents remained discussing their discontent in groups. Once an officer arrived, members of the Board took their places and resumed the meeting.
Parents remained silent until it was their turn to speak again during Item XIX, Public Comments. During this time, tensions were high, and many parents became emotional when discussing the negative impact this decision has had on their children, and their family as a whole.
Brittany Westfall explained that she is angry for her child. “How can you look at my child and other children and tell them that their education doesn’t matter as much as some of the other children?” she questioned. Westfall explained that her child is suffering. “I am a good parent and I try to do my best for my child… but my kid’s mental health has decreased significantly…they’re missing out,” explained Westfall.
Patrick Pasterick, a concerned parent and healthcare professional explained, “You all have PhDs in Education and Psychology (referencing Dr. Greenbrier Almond). You guys absolutely know what kids need…This isolation isn’t working for them.” He continued, “How about the kids that can’t read? How are they going to learn to read?” He pleaded with the members to stop running, “You’re not going to beat nature,” he stated. “Are we going to isolate our children forever?” He insisted that the BOE members explain under what directives they are making their decisions. “I just don’t understand why you are doing this. Be brave; you have a good heart, do the right thing. You’re supposed to represent us, and we are here and telling you things. Listen to us,” Pasterick pleaded.
Ariel Guady called educators out by saying, “If you’re scared to be in your classroom, I better not see you at Walmart or eating out, because I will call you out.” She also questioned the BOE about Fred Eberle Technical Center in asking, “Why are we allowing that? How are kids from other counties allowed to come here when our kids from this county cannot even go to their schools? It is not fair in any means, and sitting here thinking about it, it boils my blood,” she expressed.
Jennifer Clem has a student at Hodgesville Elementary and said she recently had to leave her job because she could not afford to send her kids to daycare. “My kids are my world, but I cannot be their teacher,” she explained. “I graduated high school 15 years ago and the way they’re doing things now, I cannot explain it to her – we fight for 3 hours a day and she’s asking why?” Clem stated. Prior to COVID, Clem’s daughter was reportedly testing two grades higher and now she is afraid to see what her testing level will be upon returning to school. “When does it ever stop? When we have 0 numbers?” she questioned.
Amanda Holley has two children and feel they’re not getting a fair shake at all. “I work in healthcare, so I understand. It is scary for everyone, but we who work in the hospital adapt and overcome. Technically, you all work for us and you are not doing your job,” she asserted. Holley got emotional when discussing her 9-year-old student who is now struggling. “Do you know how that makes me feel? She tells me she is lonely. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Holley expressed. She also mentioned that children are going well beyond the recommended daily time to be on technology. She concluded, “We have had enough. This is us toeing the line and we are done. I am speaking for myself – as of tonight, I am not doing any more homework!”
Todd Starkey of Rock Cave expressed to the BOE, “You keep saying we don’t speak for all the parents, but we all spoke at the beginning of the year when we chose between three options, and I voted to send my children to school and my kid isn’t going to school.” He asked, “Why are you speaking for virtual parents? They are getting what they voted for.” Starkey explained he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and works 9 hours. His wife doesn’t get home from work until 6 p.m., and they live on a farm, while also assisting with his 84-year-old grandfather. Starkey explained that the farm is something he wants and needs his kids to help with, but instead his kids are spending 10 hours a day doing homework, which is way more than what they’d be doing at school, he explained. “I signed up to send my kids to school and they should be in school,” he concluded.
Shanah Carpenter spoke again and asked BOE members to consider the importance of in-person schooling. She explained that this decision is changing family dynamics. “I care about my students. I am not here to give up on them, but Mr. Long (Pat Long) be considerate of families who have multiple families and the strain it is putting on them. As a teacher, I can’t handle it; my kids can’t handle it,” she expressed.
Andrea Waggoner concluded public comments. She explained that her child is in a depressive state over this situation. Generally a high-achieving student, Waggoner said he is now having to seek help from a friend in Wheeling to tutor him. “Can we hold the teachers accountable to teach them? The videos posted for him to do is not even her. I chose to send my kids to school on hybrid, so my kids know people, like their teachers, who can write him recommendations,” she explained. Waggoner continued, “Our internet is sketchy, and I just now got my iPads to work and we are more than halfway through the first semester.”
Vice President Loudin explained that she prepared a statement to the main question people have been asking, “Why?” She began her statement, “I’ve been thinking about our decision to go to full-remote learning since November 17th. I, like other board members, have been listening intently to our community, and I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to voice their concerns tonight at this meeting. This is democracy at work.” Loudin explained her own family has been adversely impacted this year, like many of the people who spoke at the meeting. However, she explained that her decision ultimately stemmed from putting the needs of the system and everyone in that system ahead of her own family’s needs. “We have learned that the ongoing teacher and substitute shortage has come to a crisis when intersected with a global pandemic. In my view, we have reached a breaking point when three classes are combined in a cafeteria to be supervised by a substitute outside of their instructional area…And the last thing I want to say is that I love my neighbors, and I love my community, enough to want to protect them. We spend thousands of dollars every year to keep the potential of a violent person with malicious intent out of our schools. Why would we not want to take every precaution to also keep this virus out of our schools, including pumping the brakes when community spread is high? One person who works for Upshur County Schools and suffers from long-term impacts, or even death, from this virus would be one person too many for me, even if my son doesn’t learn every content standard this year for first grade. I hope that we could all put our own selfish needs aside and care for each other. Robots don’t teach our children; human beings teach our children. They are my extended family, and I will do what I can to keep them safe, so they can do what they do best, teach and love our children. In the meantime, I know that every person who works for our schools is committed to working with our families, even through these extraordinary circumstances, and I would encourage any frustrated families to continue to seek solutions with their child’s teacher and building administrators.”
Dr. Greenbrier Almond thanked the staff at Union and expressed that it was “a night we will never forget.” Attendance was high, but he explained there was a meeting at Academy once with approximately 300 people. “This meeting is important. We are in unchartered waters. This virus is wrecking our economy, obviously our school system, our healthcare system… I think the vote came from me because I thought we were getting out of control and it gives us time to stabilize our lives.” According to Dr. Almond, it has obviously had a negative impact on some. He also explained that the next time there is a shortage of subs, he hopes that everyone runs to the schoolhouse and volunteers to help. “Next time we have a situation involving children, let’s do everything we can to build up the community. This an ideal place for us to come and talk about this.” He concluded by observing that there were many lessons learned at the meeting.
Board member Pat Long explained that this was not an easy decision and something they all thought long and hard about. He expressed, “I also think we have become even more aware tonight of how much our families are struggling.” This is no fault of parents or kids, but another way the virus has weakened us, he explained. Long encouraged the other members to continue to reach out to every parent at the meeting and see if there is some way they can ease the struggles to help their children. He also recommended implementing summer school when the pandemic allows to permit kids to catch up. He concluded, “It is on us to make up for this. You are right, you’re not educators in a way that the school system is. It moves us to step up to the plate when all of this over. Thank you for coming out. This is exactly where you need to be to express your concerns.”
Board member Kristi Wilkerson added, “Thank you for sharing your concerns and ideas, this isn’t easy, or decisions we take lightly. For me personally, when you put all the info in front of me, I want to make the decision that I feel is the safest for all children in Upshur County. I personally know four people who have died from this. I cannot and will not make a decision that will risk someone’s life. I want all kids there, every day, and for me, I want to err on the side of being cautious.”
After a stressful and emotional meeting, Samples concluded with the Board’s remarks. She explained that after many years on the BOE, this has by far been the most trying. “We are all victim of something we cannot control. I will speak for myself – I want kids in school, and we know that is where they learn the best. And I have to think about everyone. It is difficult and unpopular, and I have even been told that I don’t care about kids – that nearly broke my heart! We are charged with making decisions for everyone. I understand your frustration. I get it, and we, as a BOE, we must look at what’s happening and work with teachers to do this better. You all made good points; points we have already talked about. It was not a light decision,” she expressed. Samples explained that she was a teacher for 16 years and currently works at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she prepares teachers to work in the classroom. With these many different hats, Samples explained that she can see other ways this can work. “But in this position, (on the BOE) I am taxed with providing a safe environment for your children,” she emphasized. Samples concluded that they could not decide anything at the meeting, given it was not the agenda, but said the concerns will be addressed at a later date.
After hearing the Board members’ remarks, parents remained upset. Megan Westfall told The Record Deltafollowing the meeting, “I’m honestly not surprised the meeting ended without a decision. Indecision has been par for the course since the beginning of this academic year. While I understand and acknowledge the COVID concerns, I am deeply concerned for the children of Upshur County and the inadequate education they are receiving. Denying our children in-person instruction will have lifelong consequences for them in terms of lifetime earnings and their ability to break the poverty cycle. Remote learning is failing our children.”
The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be held January 5 at 6 p.m. at Tennerton Elementary School, located at 167 Gawthrop Rd. in Buckhannon.