Liz McCormick Published

How Will Public School Look In The Fall? Here’s Perspective From The Eastern Panhandle

Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Bondy Shay Gibson speaks with board members and the community over Zoom in a special meeting about reopening on Monday, July 13, 2020.

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice ordered all public schools in West Virginia open for the 2020-2021 school year beginning Sept. 8. Schools must provide 180 instructional days and must have a five-day school week.

Of course, this could all change depending on how the coronavirus pandemic evolves. But county school boards are starting to prepare for that date and discuss how a return to school in a pandemic would look.

Earlier this week in the Eastern Panhandle, both Jefferson and Berkeley County Schools met for special board meetings to begin outlining fall 2020.

The main message from both was what we know now will likely change before the Sept. 8 start date, and no matter when school begins, it will not be business as usual.

“It is anything but that. It will not look like the school that you left,” said Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Bondy Shay Gibson speaking over Zoom to board members and the public.

“We will have reduced class sizes,” she said. “We will not be having lunches in the cafeteria. We will be holding class in the library. We will be holding class to a limited extent in the gymnasium. We will be utilizing spaces that currently are congregate spaces as classroom spaces in order to socially distance students.”

These are all situations that could occur if school returns to in-person learning, which the governor is hopeful will be achieved by all 55 counties.

Gibson said students age nine or older, and all faculty and staff, will be required to wear face masks throughout the school day. Frequent sanitization and hand washing will be a constant; random visitations to schools will not be allowed, and staff in Jefferson County schools will be provided with a variety of personal protective equipment.

“We will provide gloves, we will provide Tyvek suits, we will provide shoe booties, we will provide the equipment that ensure that our staff are safe, which means that students are safe,” Gibson explained.

Across the border in Berkeley County, much of the same message was sent to board members and the community, but not quite as many details as Jefferson. Berkeley County Superintendent of Schools Patrick Murphy noted in a live Zoom meeting that the county is preparing for the fall but they’re just starting to lay the groundwork.

“I know we want absolute decisions. I know we want answers. I wish I could give you all those answers,” Murphy said. “But I’m fearful that if I give you a specific answer today, tomorrow it will not carry any merit and the environment will have changed.”

Berkeley County Superintendent of Schools Patrick Murphy presents a PowerPoint to county board members and the public detailing the district’s reopening plans for the fall.

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Berkeley County Superintendent of Schools Patrick Murphy presents a PowerPoint to county board members and the public detailing the district’s reopening plans for the fall.

Murphy said the goal of Monday’s meeting in Berkeley County was to begin a dialogue with the public about reopening plans. He said he will be providing updates regularly.

“We need to plan. We need to think,” Murphy said. “We need to look at all of the different possibilities and progressions.”

One area discussed during Berkeley County’s meeting was fall sports and how that will look different. Don Dellinger, deputy superintendent of Berkeley County Schools, outlined some of those anticipated changes.

“There are still strict guidelines with sanitizing the equipment, social distancing … so, those are all in place,” Dellinger said. “Screenings and the daily check-ins are all still in place.”

He explained that athletes will be kept to small groups and fall practices have been slated for Aug. 17.

Murphy, the superintendent, noted that everything from sports to class instruction will have to adapt – and how schools respond to needs could change at a moment’s notice as the pandemic changes.

“I think we have to recognize it’s going to look different, and while we have a traditional model of education in our mind … what education will look like is going to be different,” he said. “And we’re going to have to adapt to that as we are adapting to many things in our life.”

Both Berkeley and Jefferson County schools also made it clear in online meetings that virtual school will be an option for any family who feels concerned about sending their child to school in person. And both counties are looking at internet access options for families in areas where broadband might not be as reliable.

“We’ve been working with the West Virginia Department of Education on a deal with Sprint that we are hopeful will come to fruition,” Gibson said. “[This] would allow a full-service unlimited data plan, in-full for the entire school year for any family that is within their coverage area, provided we can purchase the appropriate hotspots for them. That is a technical problem that we are working through, but we are actively pursuing every possible means for getting WiFi access inside the home to families.”

Both counties also noted that virtual school in the fall will look different from what happened in the spring. Virtual school in fall 2020 will, according to Gibson, have regular class meetings, accountabilities in place, testing and tutoring.

It was also acknowledged by both counties that between now and Sept. 8, or even after school begins, school for fall 2020 could end up being entirely virtual depending on the pandemic.

Also, to help limit the spread of the virus, in-person class sizes will be small, and students will likely remain in a pod, or cohort, where teachers can more easily control who those students are interacting with.

The subject of how students will be social-distanced on school buses, however, did not come up in either meeting.

All 55 of West Virginia’s counties will have the flexibility to decide how fall 2020 will look within CDC guidelines and requirements set by the governor, according to the state Board of Education.

The state BOE has provided a re-entry toolkit to each county. It offers guidance as counties complete local plans and provides a framework of requirements and recommendations.