BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus and homegrown West Virginia Teacher of the Year Erin Anderson spoke to the Rotary Club of Buckhannon-Upshur about the challenges and opportunities COVID-19 has presented to the local school system. Dr. Stankus is also one of the club’s newest members.
Dr. Stankus expressed that it has been a challenging year and stated, “In that challenge we have found opportunity. We feel very blessed to live in this community in which we receive so much support.” She continued, “We believe Upshur is a place where we can all come to the table and combine our dollars to face our challenges.”
Anderson’s main platform in her quest has been “teacher identity.” The students need their teachers, but teachers also need their students, Dr. Stankus emphasized. “We are by no means failing, we are adapting,” Anderson asserted. “We value the work we do for the children of Upshur County and West Virginia.” Anderson said she wants to make sure teachers are celebrated and know that they’re valued. Through the highs and lows of the pandemic, Anderson said teachers and administrators have had to pivot. She explained that most teachers are schedule driven, and sort of rigid, but there has been a lot of “pivoting” these days—taking challenges and turning them into an opportunity.
Anderson explained that what is benefiting her tremendously, is guarding what she is reading and listening to—being mindful. She advised, “Whatever we are filling ourselves with is what will pour out of us when life knocks us down… Unfollow those people who make you feel like you’re not enough. It is a choice to see the good,” she stated. Anderson passes this life lesson down in her own family as well. Addressing the return of students, she said, “They’re so happy to be back in school right now. They’re thriving with the schedule. They need their teachers. They’re our heroes. They’re so resilient… They’re learning so much more than academics. My teacher heart is so full right now because we’re back in person.”
Dr. Stankus explained that they have been incredibly busy since March, as there are approximately 1,200 students that are full time remote. With about 24,000 people in the county and 4,000 of those being students, she suggested the impact that this one system can have on the folks of Upshur County is quite significant.
In March, when the BOE realized they would likely not be returning to school, Dr. Stankus explained they had to completely redesign how they were doing things. Prior to remote learning, Upshur County schools had already secured the $3 million contract with Apple that allowed for each student, classroom and teacher to be equipped with adequate technology. “When we were redeveloping the way, we educate students and families, we had to do a lot of listening,” Dr. Stankus explained. The BOE, along with their other committees dedicated to COVID planning, gave their families choices. “We left the door open to the schoolhouse,” she stated. For the students they hadn’t heard from, she said, “Even principals drove to those homes and knocked on the doors, often with a box of food in hand.” In the month of December, they served 12,361 hot meals and distributed 10,605 5-day boxes, which has been a huge undertaking, according to Dr. Stankus.
Dr. Stankus added that a lot of families don’t have access to reliable internet. Results from a survey reportedly showed that 52% of families from Washington District do not have reliable internet, followed by 51% lacking at Rock Cave. “How can we say we are providing remote learning to a community that doesn’t have access to internet?” Dr. Stankus questioned. Those students have the opportunity to come to the school, upload the content to their devices and then return home to complete it. She said they’re working closely with UCDA Director Rob Hinton to address this need.
“In spite of the pandemic, this has given us some opportunities to look at the way we are doing things,” Dr. Stankus stated. “Do I ever think remote learning will go away? Probably not. Some families have figured it out and they’re okay keeping their children at home and teaching them, giving them other opportunities and have access to education in a different way,” she continued. She reported that some of the high school students even got jobs during the pandemic and doing so has helped their families meet their basic needs. “Some of them are the only substantial income for the family,” she added. These circumstances have challenged the way things have always been done, but also shows that students can learn in different ways and in different environments, according to Dr. Stankus.
Programs offered within each school are also changing. For example, the high school’s Future Leaders program that replaced the old ROTC program, has a new focus on innovations in science, technology and aerospace, which will incorporate a flight simulator. They’re also in the process of a pilot program for students with addiction issues. Assistant Superintendent Debra Harrison added they’re also taking a look at the outlook for college versus community technical education. For students who choose a technical path, they want to ensure they’re employment ready leaving high school. The goal is to create a comprehensive high school that accommodates students who choose a path aside from college—a program where they can receive specific certifications or an associate’s degree.
Dr. Stankus also touched on the CEFP plan, which intends to move the middle school to the high school, and to create a new high school with expanded opportunities. The current high school would be revamped to best suit middle school students, while plans for the new high school will hopefully include an emphasis in aerospace and technology. The new facility could potentially be open to adult learners in the evenings, in order for them to receive similar training in these areas. Retention in college is alarming, according to Dr. Stankus. Degrees aren’t being utilized and a lot of debt is being accumulated, so they want to provide more effective opportunities.
Dr. Stankus also addressed the shortage in teachers. “We are really looking for anyone who is willing to step in,” she explained. Sympathetic to the situation, she added, “Our workforce was made up of retired educators, so when those folks needed to stay home, it put a burden on our system.” They’re eager for any qualified young person out there who is willing to step up to become a substitute teacher, cook, custodian or bus driver.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Rotary member Rich Clemens expressed that having been a teacher himself and having kids who grew up in the Upshur County school system, “The teacher job isn’t quite as easy as they thought it was.” He also addressed Anderson in saying, “We remember our best teachers and I am sure they will remember you quite well. Congratulations.”
Rotary President Julie Keehner concluded, “We are for you, as fellow Rotarians, and people who are invested in this community. Thank you for giving your time and effort.”