Liz McCormick Published

All W.Va. Counties Now Offer Some In-Person Instruction As Teacher Unions Prepare For Legal Fight

The Marion County Board of Education meets for an emergency meeting on Jan. 22, 2021 to discuss school reentry.

The last county school systems in West Virginia that did not implement in-person instruction have accepted a mandate passed by the state Board of Education.

The ruling requires some in-person instruction for grades K-8 regardless of the color on the state’s COVID-19 risk map.

All 55 county school systems are now offering some in-person classes. In some places, school might be held in brick-and-mortar buildings a full five days a week, but in others, some have shortened days, and some are blended — alternating between in-person and remote throughout the week.

Fully remote learning is no longer permitted for students in kindergarten through middle school, and high schools are only allowed to be remote when a county is red on the state’s coronavirus map.

Gilmer, Taylor and Marion counties were the last to follow the state’s mandate. The week began with seven counties opting to stay fully remote.

On Thursday, Gilmer and Taylor county boards of education held emergency meetings to reconsider the state BOE’s ruling, and on Friday, Marion County did the same.

Marion County Superintendent Randall Farley had recommended a return to full, in-person instruction following the state board’s ruling on Jan. 13, but the Marion school board opted to keep all students remote whenever a county is orange or red, which is what the state followed in the fall.

Farley urged board members once again on Friday to follow the state’s recommendation for the spring.

“The second semester registration shows that 69 percent [of families] are choosing the in-person learning option, and 31 percent are choosing a virtual or distance learning option,” Farley said. “Those percentages have remained consistent and constant throughout all offerings of in-person learning — from the get go.”

Some board members, while agreeing students should be in school and ultimately voted in favor of that, said they felt “strong-armed” by the state board. Superintendent Clayton Burch argued against their characterization.

“I wouldn’t call it strong-arming,” Burch said. “I would call it following the [state] constitution and advocating for children’s rights, and that right is the ability to have an in-person instruction [option].”

Gov. Jim Justice said during a press briefing Thursday that he wants children to return to school to offset learning loss and protect students’ social-emotional health. Health officials say the spread of COVID-19 among children age 15 and younger is minimal.

Meanwhile, West Virginia’s two largest teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia chapter and the West Virginia Education Association, are asking judges to halt or slow down the governor’s push to reopen more classrooms during the pandemic. They are demanding that education workers be given the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine before being forced to return to in-person learning.

“We don’t know everything there is to know about COVID-19 at this point,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association in Friday’s meeting with the Marion County Board of Education. “Why would you put the safety of your educators, your students and everyone’s family at risk?”

Other union members said it was “ludicrous” to think that COVID-19 wasn’t spreading in K-8. They also pointed to the new strain of the virus that has turned up in certain states. Health experts say the new strain, while not more deadly than the original strain of COVID-19, is at least 50 percent more contagious.

By the end of the meeting, however, board members voted to concur with the state school board’s mandate.

Virtual schooling is still available to all 55 counties and all grade levels. Virtual is different from remote, especially at the local level, according to the West Virginia Department of Education, in that virtual often mirrors a real classroom held over video conference with a local teacher. But this is not true for the state’s virtual option, West Virginia Virtual School, which is asynchronous and with teachers from out-of-state.

Some local teachers have argued to keep remote learning, because they have adapted their remote model to mirror that of a virtual option, where they provide instruction in real time over Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Starting Monday, Jan. 25, all 55 counties will be back to some form of in-person schooling.

All schools, both public and private, are required to follow COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing.