Liz McCormick Published

Back To School And Masking: Kanawha County Superintendent Talks Returning to Classes

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As West Virginia counties return to school, the debate over masks in classrooms continues.

Last week, Kanawha County Schools — home of the state’s capital city — was the first school system to return for the fall. The county was also the first district to issue a masking mandate for all students in pre-K-5th grade.

In this week’s episode of our summer education radio series, “Closing the COVID Gap,” Liz McCormick sat down over Skype with Kanawha County Superintendent Tom Williams to discuss the first week back to school and the challenges ahead.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity. 

LIZ MCCORMICK: Here we are at the start of a new school year, and this fall looks, in many ways, better from last fall. But we are still in the middle of a global health pandemic. Many things remain the same as they did last fall. Can you talk with us about how things are different this year compared to last year? And how did the first week of school go?

TOM WILLIAMS: Overall, the first week of school went well. We did have a couple of issues with HVAC and caused us to have to close two schools. But that meant that 64 of our schools were open. So that’s a positive thing. We are back with masks for pre-K through 5th grade. We also have many more students in our schools this year than last year. We don’t have e-learning, fewer students are on virtual, and most of our students are in-person. So those are all positive things.

MCCORMICK: Superintendent, I know that virtual learning may not be offered at all elementary schools in the state, and I understand that elementary-age students struggled more with virtual and remote learning compared to older students. Is Kanawha County offering a virtual option for elementary-age students?

WILLIAMS: Yes, we have virtual. We’re doing it a little differently this year. We are actually having live sessions in virtual with our elementary students, like for phonics and things of that nature. We also have teachers and coaches that check in with kids. I think it’ll be much better this year for our virtual students.

MCCORMICK: Kanawha County Schools was the first district in West Virginia to issue any kind of masking mandate, even before Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Department of Education issued their own recommendations. Why did your county ultimately decide to require masks of pre-K-5th grade? What led to that decision?

WILLIAMS: I think the reasoning behind our board’s decision on that was the older kids had had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and those who chose to do so did, and our elementary students didn’t have that option. So that’s why the board felt that it was important to make sure our elementary students were as protected as possible.

MCCORMICK: Last week, state officials came out recommending that school systems work with their local health departments to determine masking guidelines and protocols. But the governor has said that he will not issue a statewide mask mandate for schools. I’m curious if this is something you agree with. Should it be left up to counties even though the CDC has recommended masks for all K-12 students, faculty and staff regardless of vaccination status?

WILLIAMS: I’m not going to second-guess any of our leaders in the state, but they have left that decision up to each local county, and that’s what we’re doing.

MCCORMICK: We know that there has been nationwide pushback to masking in schools this year. Some states are even seeing large protests outside of state school board meetings. It’s a contentious issue. Have you seen this level of division in Kanawha County?

WILLIAMS: We do have folks who feel that it should be left up to the parents to make that decision. But you know, our kids are in school, they’re masked at the elementary level. We’ve had very few, if any issues, with that. And we’re excited to have our kids back where they belong, so that we can meet them where they are and take them to the next level.

MCCORMICK: Last week, the West Virginia Department of Education released last year’s test scores. West Virginia saw drops in math, science and English language arts during the pandemic. But we are not alone in this, of course, as much of the nation also saw similar drops in their school systems. However, we do know that West Virginia has been below the national average in many core subjects for some time.

What do you think it will take to help West Virginia improve student achievement on the national scale? And what I’m specifically interested in is what are some concentrated strategies that you have in mind to tackle this issue head on?

WILLIAMS: We are focusing on English language arts and math this year. We have interventionists in our schools that are able to pull students out and work with them in small groups. We have computer programs that work with students and build upon their knowledge to make sure they’re mastering the standards.

We also have a program that puts all of this information right at the teachers fingertips. It has their test scores and all data, attendance and discipline issues, etc. We also have extra teachers in the schools this year, based on using the federal ESSER money that was passed down from the federal government.

So we’re using all of our resources possible to hone in on students and the standards they are missing and make sure that we are able to get them caught up.

MCCORMICK: All counties in West Virginia are expected to be back in school by Sept. 7. Looking at the state as a whole, all 55 counties experienced struggles this past year and are looking ahead at some of the challenges they’re going to be dealing with this coming year. What do you anticipate may be some of the biggest challenges for our school systems in West Virginia this year as we continue as a nation and as a state to work through this pandemic and toward closing the gap in education that’s been created by COVID-19 impacts?

WILLIAMS: One of the challenges would be attendance. We need to have the students in school so that we can work with them, and I think that’s probably around the state.

We need to get kids back into the school mode. It’s difficult. Some have been out of the building for 18 months. So we are seeing a few behavior problems, especially in the little ones, because they don’t have any school experience to draw on. The older kids remember what it was like before COVID and know how they’re supposed to act.

We’re in the second week now, and we’re bringing that along, and it’s working well. You mentioned earlier, the politics of all of this. If we could just get rid of the politics of everything and just give us the kids and let us educate them, then I think everyone would be much better off.