Liz McCormick Published

Closing The COVID Gap: WVPB Launches New Education Radio Series

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Since March 13, 2020, when Gov. Jim Justice announced that all K-12 schools would close due to the looming coronavirus pandemic, West Virginia’s education system has been climbing a steep hill to get kids back on track.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s new summer-long series, “Closing the COVID Gap,” will explore this challenging road ahead for educators, students and families as they work together to close the learning gap created by the pandemic.

In this first episode, we look back and also ahead to where our schools go from here.

Students Enter Emergency Remote Learning

The early days of the pandemic feel like a lifetime ago, so it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a little more than one year since Justice announced all schools would be shuttered.

“You want a governor to make tough decisions,” Justice said on March 13, 2020 in a press conference. “I’m closing the schools. That’s all there is to it.”

The governor did not know at the time when schools would reopen, but West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said at the press conference that he and his staff had been preparing for a possible closure for weeks.

“This is not something we decided today to put a plan together,” Burch said. “We knew that it would be an issue, [and] we have about 200,000 children in the state that rely on meals.”

When the statewide closure happened, school districts in all 55 counties continued to feed students throughout the spring and summer. And academically, schools shifted to an emergency, remote-learning model.

Fast forward to the fall, and school districts were trying to sort out how to effectively and safely reopen.

Justice and state health officials introduced the color-coded COVID risk map to determine each week which counties could offer in-person learning and which had to keep kids home.

Reliable internet access was an issue, so officials launched Kids Connect, which created more than 1,000 WiFi hotspots spread out over all 55 counties.

But despite the admirable and inspiring efforts of teachers, parents and state education officials, a third of all K-12 students still failed core subjects in the fall of 2020, according to state officials.

Experts project it will take thousands of dollars — per kid — over many years to adequately address learning disparities spawned in the wake of the pandemic.

That’s partially why this spring, West Virginia state officials insisted schools reopen fully for younger students, while high school students would follow a hybrid model unless community spread was low. Full-time virtual school, however, remained an option for all grade levels.

But the spring also brought promise as coronavirus vaccines started to circulate.

Coronavirus Vaccines And Summer Remediation Enter The Equation

“Even our young people are talking about the power of what these vaccinations can do for them,” Burch, the state schools chief, said at a news conference in early May. “It didn’t matter whether they were AP students, career-technical education students, or students that might be in the JROTC; they all had the same message.”

The message from students, according to Burch, was that vaccines are the way forward to get back to a sense of normalcy at school.

Today, children as young as 12 are eligible to be vaccinated.

As we enter the summer, school districts in West Virginia are focused on getting kids back on track.

“We know we’re gonna catch kids up, but that is not our goal. Our goal is to recapture the love of learning,” said Wood County Superintendent of Schools William Hosaflook at the May West Virginia Board of Education meeting.

“That’s the most important thing right now. We have to get students engaged in school again. We have to get students loving coming to school and wanting to be involved, and doing projects and activities with rigor involved,” Hosaflook said to board members.

West Virginia, like other states, received millions of federal dollars in COVID-19 relief money. Some of that funding is supposed to be dedicated to summer remediation efforts.

The West Virginia Department of Education created a summer grant program available to all counties. They’ve awarded about $32 million. All counties, except for Boone, have opted to receive some of that money.

Counties can decide how to use the funds, but the WVDE is hopeful districts will hit on a few key areas like tutoring and increasing social-emotional support.

“A lot of [the districts] have been talking about hiring counselors or bringing in their social workers to support the students during [the summer],” said Christy Schwartz, the coordinator for student support and well-being for the WVDE, in a Facebook video. “I’m hoping that that will really help [students] and give them, you know, an outlet and some coping strategies for dealing with their feelings and all of that.”

Some counties will offer summer school camps rather than traditional summer school. In Wood County, the district is offering a STEAM Camp, where students will focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Other counties, like Mercer, will offer “classrooms on wheels” that will begin during the second-half of July and run into the fall. Four buses: a STEM bus, a virtual reality technology bus, a fitness and music bus, and an art, drama and writing bus will be traveling routes across the county.

Two goals remain consistent among education officials going forward — recovery from COVID’s impacts and bridging the achievement gap.

Both of which, WVPB will explore every Wednesday in the weeks ahead.

This episode of “Closing the COVID Gap” originally aired on West Virginia Morning on June 9, 2021.