Liz McCormick Published

LISTEN: School Superintendent Burch Points To Recovery, Achievement Gap For Spring 2021 Goals

West Virginia Superintendent Clayton Burch speaks to media in a virtual press briefing on Sept. 25, 2020.

It’s been a tough year for K-12 education in West Virginia. From making sure students were fed in the spring and summer, to figuring out how to open safely in the fall, to balancing new and old learning models, and to finding solutions to broadband challenges.

As students, parents and school personnel take a break and enter the holidays, state education leaders are now looking ahead to the spring and a new year.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch has some goals in mind he wants to tackle when students and staff return in January. Two things in particular: recovery and the achievement gap.

Extended: School Superintendent Burch Points To Recovery, Achievement Gap For Spring 2021 Goals

“When I talk about recovery, it’s not just recovery from the pandemic,” Burch said. “But what did the pandemic do to these children during this time period? What do we need to prepare for when we get some sense of normalcy back? When they all come back to school, we better be prepared for the trauma these children have faced.”

For the achievement gap, Burch said education officials need to identify which children have fallen through the cracks this year and reach out to help them, and he also thinks students need to be given a statewide assessment to further identify where the need is greatest.

“This year, we want to focus on assessments that help us begin having a dialogue about what the gap is and how to prepare the future,” Burch said. “We have to start figuring out what this new baseline is we’re working with, and without a statewide assessment, we don’t know what it is.”

Education reporter Liz McCormick spoke with Burch last week over Microsoft Teams to hear more about the ideas and initiatives he’s planning to tackle in 2021.

Extended transcript below. This conversation was edited for clarity.

MCCORMICK: I want to begin our conversation by asking you to reflect on this year. What were some of the biggest hurdles you and your staff experienced this year?

BURCH: It has been quite a challenge. I remind everybody that when March 13 came, and we heard the announcement that schools we’re going to be closed, we felt as if the rug was pulled out from under us. And we wondered if we were prepared. Within 48 hours, we had a COVID-19 website and task force put together. By Monday morning, we were ready to begin serving meals, and that was probably the first biggest challenge and hurdle we had – is how do we make sure that we’re, right out of the gates, feeding each one of these children. In 2019, we served about 500,000 meals in the state of West Virginia during that summer. This past summer, in 2020, we served 8 million meals.

The second … we had to ensure [every child] had at least one caring adult. The schools serve such an important support system for them day-in and day-out. It’s their routine. It’s their schedule. It’s where they’re fed. It’s where they’re cared for. Oftentimes, it’s where they receive health care. So, the next big lift we found was how do we connect and deal with that. I think folks immediately thought, well, remote learning, you know, we’re in an era of the 21st century, we’ll go digital. And that didn’t take very long at all to figure out that was not going to work. We found out right out of the gates that less than half the children had access to the internet. [So], through about the first week or two of September, we put up about 1,000 WiFi spots in the state to try to fill the gap. And honestly, we all know it’s a Band-Aid. The governor has a long-term vision for broadband access and equity for the state. But in a 30-40 day period, to put up 1,000 public WiFi spots for Kids Connect was one feat.

Finally, the [last] big rock was how do we come back in September. …We could not stop educational engagement and instruction. I’ve continually said that these children’s futures cannot be put on hold. We still have children that have visions of graduating this year and going off to college. We’ve got our youngest learners that are still in need of being supported. …So, our teachers out there have just stepped up unbelievably to try to figure out how to support these children, whether it be in a classroom, whether it be virtually, and in some cases when we deal with this week-to-week.

MCCORMICK: In the most recent West Virginia Board of Education meeting, you said you’re focused on two areas specifically for the spring. Those are recovery and the achievement gap. Can you talk with us about what you’re hoping to do in those two areas as we go into this spring semester?

BURCH: You almost have to go back to prior pandemic. I have to remind folks that we were already in a state of crisis. We lead the nation in opioid deaths. We were top four in the nation in poverty, child abuse, foster care system — over 7,000 children in foster care — and then you add the pandemic to that. So, when I talk about recovery, it’s not just recovery from the pandemic, but what did the pandemic do to these children during this time period? What do we need to prepare for when we get some sense of normalcy back? I think our teachers are going to have to be prepared, even though I believe they really knew they had to focus on the social-emotional needs of these children. But I think when they all come back to school, we better be prepared for the trauma that these children have faced.

We already had an achievement gap prior to the pandemic. What does that achievement gap look like leading into the fall of 2021? We hear stories that when there’s other natural disasters that happen, and schools are shut down for extended periods of time, it takes years to get back even to the original baseline. I’m having a real hard time, as a state superintendent, believing that it could take us four to five years to get back to the original baseline. These children don’t have that kind of time. So, then we have to be really, really serious about what the achievement gap looks like and how we’re going to have to think very, very differently about tackling it.

MCCORMICK: Is standardized testing something you’re considering for the spring?

BURCH: If we don’t, how do we begin to talk and discuss what the gap really is? We need to do a standardized assessment at some point, and I think this spring is the right place. Now, when people use the term standardized assessments, they often think, ‘oh, we give a standardized assessment, and it’s a reflection on the school, or it’s part of an accountability system we’re going to be held to,’ [but] that is not what I’m talking about. We have a state board, who, along with myself, have committed to eliminating those ties this year. We don’t want to talk about accountability this year. We want to focus on assessments that help us begin having a dialogue about what the gap is and how to prepare the future. We have to start figuring out what this new baseline is we’re working with, and without a statewide assessment, we don’t know what it is.

MCCORMICK: I actually emailed all 55 of the county superintendents. I heard back from a few of them. I asked them about what kind of challenges they experienced this fall, and what were they thinking about for the spring? One of the things I heard from those who replied is they’re concerned about the kids who have really struggled this year, who may have to repeat a grade, or who are very behind. Can you talk about the concerns they brought up?

BURCH: Let’s take, for example, we’re gonna have children, that maybe they were in a blended [school] model, and they were only in school two days a week and left to do independent work three days a week. We’re not real sure how well that worked. We’re gonna have children who had been in a remote setting for most of the fall semester, which means they weren’t in a classroom at all. They had little connectivity. And then we have children who have been on a virtual platform. Some of them are great virtual platforms. They’ve had daily engagement with teachers. Others have been left to their own devices. It’s been completely independent. We’ve got to figure out a way to identify what do each of them need, as we start coming back to some sense of normalcy. These superintendents, as we move forward, working with their principals and their teachers, first and foremost, are going to have to identify how bad the gap is.

So, you know, with that being said, we want to help them. We actually have an office of research here that’s going to be looking at the types of settings these children were in, and potentially having to look and see which ones were successful. And as we come back as a full class, how do we assist teachers to identify and support them to be in on many, many different levels?

MCCORMICK: What about further broadband expansion? Have you had discussions with the governor to improve and expand access for students?

BURCH: Kids Connect was really [Gov. Jim Justice’s] idea. He challenged us to have 1,000 [WiFi hotspots] up in 30 or 40 days. But the discussion didn’t end there. The governor is very, very aware that we do need to have a long-term solution for broadband. The governor [is] looking at it much broader and understands very clearly that it is for our children, but the importance for the state, when it comes to health care, economics; it is absolutely something that our state needs. So yes, the governor continues to talk about long-term solutions to broadband. He has asked that I continually stay engaged with that discussion.

MCCORMICK: Have you had any discussions about bonuses at all for teachers and staff as we enter into the spring? Considering how challenging this fall was? Is that something that’s on your radar?

BURCH: I don’t know that any of us have ever used the term bonuses. I think that our teachers have done admirably and to be honest with you, I don’t think the conversation has changed. We all know that we continue to look at teacher pay in the state of West Virginia. That’s still a topic that we all talk about. It’s not just a topic that’s important for our current workforce. It’s a topic that’s important in the future for us to be able to recruit and retain high quality teachers. We found out that during this pandemic — we knew we had a teacher shortage — [but] I don’t think we were prepared for how short our substitute teacher shortage was. So, that was something we found out that we do not have teachers on the bench ready to step in.

MCCORMICK: Right. I do know that retainment is something you’re thinking about for the spring. I understand in the most recent state board of education meeting, that was something you brought up — looking at creating some task forces to try and recruit teachers.

BURCH: That’s correct. Chancellor [Sarah] Tucker and I, we have an interagency collaboration. Recognizing both the teacher shortage, and I appreciate you bringing up retainment-recruitment, I think we’re going to have to get very, very creative on how to recruit and retain teachers for the future. You know, we have many, many folks in the state that have dedicated their lives to educating children in West Virginia, and we need to figure out a way to recruit and retain that new generation of teachers.

MCCORMICK: As we’re about to enter the holidays and enter into the end of a very difficult year, what would be some final thoughts that you would like to share with teachers, parents and students?

BURCH: It has been a very, very difficult year. But I also think what we’ve seen is that our children are very resilient. Our families are very caring and flexible. And I hope that what we’ve seen during this pandemic is a renewed appreciation for our teachers and our service personnel. I also remind folks all the time that I’m a father, I’ve had my children at home during the same struggles with virtual, remote learning. And I can tell you that even in my position, the appreciation I have for what an educator does day-in and day-out with my child at school, and our service personnel, whether you’re a bus driver, a school cafeteria worker, a custodian — what they bring to the lives of those children day-in and day-out is something that I hope that over the holiday season that we all reflect on.