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We continue with our summer education radio series, “Closing the COVID Gap.” In our last story, we heard from West Virginia’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. Now, we take a closer look at what some West Virginians are thinking about when it comes to school this fall.
Last year, many West Virginia counties were forced into remote and virtual learning models as COVID-19 spread worsened. Some students struggled with learning from home, but there were also some who thrived. By August 2020, 50,000 students in the Mountain State had signed up for full, virtual learning.
But some, like 17-year-old Reese Wilbur, a student at Capital High School in Charleston, made the decision to go virtual after the school year started.
“The first two weeks we were red, so I couldn’t go in-person,” said Wilbur, referencing the color-coded COVID-19 risk map used by the West Virginia Department of Education. “[But] I was like, I don’t want this to be how it’s going to be all year, not knowing if I’m going to be in-person or not. So I made the decision to just go fully virtual, and that was honestly the best thing I could have done.”
Wilbur said she makes good grades and doesn’t like to procrastinate, so she felt confident virtual school would be doable. And she did well.
“It really just allowed me to focus more on my work,” she said. “Honestly, I feel more connected. Like, I feel like I really, really learned a lot this year.”
She said she felt like a college student, and the flexibility of her school schedule allowed her to work during the school year, too. She liked the setup so much that she wants to stick with virtual again for her senior year this fall.
Wilbur is not alone in feeling like she was able to stay more focused doing virtual school. This was the same for Tara Pauley, whose son signed up for virtual school at George Washington High School in Charleston.
Pauley ended up running a small virtual learning pod with her son and her son’s close friend. Both boys will be sophomores this fall. At first, choosing virtual was about safety, but Pauley said this learning model actually allowed both boys to get ahead in school and create a schedule that worked for them.
“We started working and we could work for a few hours, take a break. They could play video games,” Pauley said. “And then go back to getting their work done for a couple more hours. [Virtual] just didn’t have the same stress to it.”
Both boys are on individual education plans, or IEPs, for attention issues. Pauley said as the boys realized they were making better grades at home versus when they were in traditional classrooms, she noticed a boost in their mental health.
“They’re smart boys, but I don’t think the way that things have been going for them in school that they were seeing that of themselves,” she said. “And I feel, as we’ve gone through this year, that I’ve seen them change how they felt about themselves to a more positive view of their abilities.”
For Pauley, sticking with virtual this fall is a no-brainer for her son, because he flourished.
There were also some families who decided to give homeschooling a try. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the rate of families in the U.S. that opted to try homeschooling for the 2020-2021 school year doubled compared to the previous year.
Clover Wright is an assistant professor of early childhood education at California University of Pennsylvania. She has a doctorate of education in curriculum and instruction specializing in early childhood learning. Wright decided to homeschool her three boys out of safety concerns.
“Knowing that they didn’t love online learning, and definitely not wanting to put our children in school unvaccinated, we made the decision to withdraw them from the school system and homeschool them,” Wright said.
Wright, who is the wife of former West Virginia Public Broadcasting news director Jesse Wright, said she and her mother took turns throughout the year teaching the boys from home. Her sons, who are 11, 9, and 7, turned out to really like homeschooling.
“My goal for this year was to make the learning their job,” she said. “To kind of give them autonomy over their education in a way that they’d never had. Not in public school, or even before they were in public school. To say to them, you know, what are your interests? What do you want to get good at?”
State health officials, such as coronavirus czar Clay Marsh, reported last year that children are less likely to catch and spread COVID-19. But there is still a chance they could get sick and for a child to get very ill.
There are also concerns over Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, or MIS-C, which is a condition that sometimes develops in children after contracting COVID-19 or from being around someone who has had it. The condition can be deadly, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report most children recover from MIS-C after receiving medical care.
Wright is concerned about MIS-C, any potential long-term health impacts, and she’s worried about the new Delta variant. She said she will keep her sons in homeschool until they are eligible for the vaccine.
“For me, it’s about minimizing the risks that my kids have,” she said.
While some students ended up thriving in virtual or homeschool learning, some students found school at home particularly challenging, including 17-year-old Layton Watts from South Charleston High School.
“At first, it wasn’t too bad, but after however many weeks and months of just not knowing what’s coming next and just having to be inside, it really took a toll on us,” Watts remembered.
Watts will be a senior this fall, and while he said he did fine grade-wise this past year, the isolation from completing school work at home was tough.
“I can’t really explain how I felt in that time, but I had never experienced anything like that,” he said. “It was the most difficult time I think I’ve ever gone through, and just the trauma from it, I’m still dealing with it. I don’t ever want to have to sit in one place ever again, because that was terrible.”
In addition to the social-emotional concerns, academic progress was also an issue for both students and educators. The West Virginia Department of Education reported in the spring that one-third of all K-12 students in West Virginia failed at least one core subject in the fall.
The agency said data for the spring won’t be available until August, but the potential gap in learning was so concerning that a major push this summer in West Virginia has been toward remediation efforts — from robust summer school camps to classrooms on wheels.
Watts said he’s thrilled about having a more normal school experience for his senior year.
“I’m not as worried now as I was at this time last year about the future,” he said. “And it’s a real relief, knowing that things are getting back to the way they were.”
This episode of “Closing the COVID Gap” originially aired on West Virginia Morning on July 7, 2021.