Liz McCormick Published

State Lawmakers Outline Education Goals For 2021 Session

Patricia Rucker - January 2021.jpg

As West Virginia lawmakers gear up to return to the Capitol next week for the 2021 state legislative session, there are many issues that are top of mind — from tackling the coronavirus pandemic, expanding telehealth care, broadband, job creation, tax repeals and reviewing the governor’s emergency powers — another issue will be center stage: education.

Both K-12 and higher education in West Virginia have faced a plethora of challenges over the past year as they continue to navigate the pandemic.

This week, the West Virginia Press Association held a virtual legislative lookahead event with state senators, delegates and officials in education. The event shed light on education goals they hope to tackle this session — from remediation efforts to school choice.

K-12 Education

Lawmakers made it clear the state’s K-12 education system needs improvements.

“If the COVID has shown us anything, it’s shown us that the decisions that are made are important,” said Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “The fact that we had the foresight way back in 2017 to allow and encourage the creation of virtual online options — well, thank goodness we did that, because that became our lifeline.”

Rucker is referring to legislation passed in 2017 that allowed county school districts the control to create their own local, virtual school option — should it ever be needed.

Not all counties created their own virtual school though, but many did, like Jefferson, Ohio and Kanawha counties. Having local virtual options proved to be hugely important when the pandemic hit.

Rucker said her committee will make efforts this session to enhance school choice — including virtual and in-person options. Rucker said there will also be efforts to improve the state’s current public charter school law.

The state has yet to establish a charter.

“The amount of students that are choosing to go beyond the public school system is something that’s concerning a lot in the education field,” she said. “But the reality is, this is the new normal, and we need to be ready to address the educational needs of all West Virginia students.”

Rucker said some of her other priorities include tackling the teacher shortage and improving the state education system as a whole.

Last week, a Senate Education Survey was made public on the legislature’s website seeking feedback from K-12 teachers on ways to improve the state’s education system. Currently, that survey is down for maintenance, according to Rucker, but should be live again by the start of session.

In the West Virginia House of Delegates, education is also on delegates’ radar. Former House Education Chair Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who currently acts as Majority Whip, said the House will also be looking at enhancing school choice and getting students back in school — many of whom are still in virtual education or blended models of instruction due to the pandemic.

“That’s certainly something that I hope that our state school board, working with our school districts, will continue to do everything possible that we can to make our school classrooms as safe as possible so that our students can return to school,” Espinosa said.

Remediation concerns are also on the list for possible consideration. Minority Chair of House Education, Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said the minority is preparing legislation called the Student Rescue Act that would expand summer school options to help students catch up after a very challenging fall. He said COVID relief money from Congress should be invested in West Virginia.

“We think that we should make a robust program, leveraging the new dollars that are gonna come in from the federal program to create that,” Hornbuckle said. “[And] create a situation where kids are able to bring their GPAs up.”

Hornbuckle said the key will be coming up with innovative ways to ensure families have the options and support they need to help public school students improve their grades.

This is also a concern of Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch who said there are conversations happening now between the West Virginia Department of Education and all 55 county school districts.

Burch said the WVDE plans to use $33 million leftover from CARES Act funding to support summer learning opportunities.

“The $33 million is robust, long term, and [allows us to] really focus on a full scale, variety of offerings,” Burch said. “Transportation, meals included, working with your community partners, bringing them in to be part of a very, very robust summer learning program.”

Burch said he does not expect to request more dollars from the legislature to address remediation efforts, because the state board and the state department of education already have initiatives in place for target remediation.

“Until we really get a chance … to get those children back in person, get past this pandemic and really start establishing what is the learning gap or learning loss we’re really dealing with, I think [asking for additional funds] would be a little premature,” Burch said.

He also said remediation needs to go beyond grades and should include mental health services.

The West Virginia Department of Education reports that as a result of the pandemic and the inconsistencies with learning, one-third of K-12 students in West Virginia failed at least one core subject last semester.

Burch is hopeful that creating strong, summer programs will help.

Higher Education

Higher education has also had a rough time this year.

College student enrollment is down in most cases across the state, and many students have struggled with food insecurity, as well as access to both reliable broadband and mental health services.

Higher education officials also reported this week that applications for the PROMISE scholarship are down by 50 percent compared to last year, and the FAFSA application, the first step in obtaining federal student aid, is down by 25 percent.

“I hope that the numbers that I’ve given you about FAFSA and PROMISE alarm you, because they alarm me,” said Sarah Tucker, chancellor of both the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System.

Tucker said there are committed efforts happening to try and engage with more students to ensure they are applying for both.

On the brightside, Tucker said cumulatively, only 1.8 percent of students, faculty and staff at all four-year, higher education institutions across the state tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the fall semester. She also said there were just three hospitalizations, and all three individuals made full recoveries.

“That is a testament to what our faculty and staff and our students and our college presidents and administrators have done to try to ensure that school is safe,” Tucker said.

Tucker said surveillance testing continues at college campuses. This testing is supported by Gov. Jim Justice, and allows colleges to randomly test 10 percent of campus populations each week.

Many college courses remain in online or hybrid formats, but several are face-to-face. Vaccinations of higher education officials have also begun.

“In higher ed, we’re vaccinating all of our faculty and staff who are in-person who are over the age of 50,” she said. “The first round of those vaccinations will be complete, I understand, assuming that all of our supplies come in as expected, the week of Feb. 22.”

Vaccinations of K-12 teachers and school service personnel for individuals age 50 and older began in early January.

Tucker said what she hopes the West Virginia Legislature focuses on, in terms of higher education needs this year, are extensive measures to improve broadband.

“I am smart enough to know that I am not smart enough to solve the broadband problem in the state of West Virginia, but I am begging that somebody does, because we need it,” she said. “Our students desperately, desperately need it. Our state needs it. And the future of our state really depends on someone with the knowhow, figuring out how to solve this issue.”

Broadband issues were a major concern this fall as students in both K-12 and higher ed were completing more coursework from home. Early on in the fall, the governor and state education officials announced an initiative called Kids Connect that established more than 1,000 WiFi hotspots throughout the state to help ease the burden of unreliable internet in some areas. State education leaders have called Kids Connect a “band-aid.”

Both the House and Senate chambers have made it clear that tackling the broadband challenges of the state would be one of the biggest goals for the 2021 session. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the House would begin addressing broadband expansion efforts as early as next week when the legislature convenes for its regular session.

Tucker said beyond broadband hopes, she is preparing to put forth a request to the legislature for more resources for higher education institutions to tackle mental and behavioral health issues that became major points of concern this fall.

She also said a second initiative is to aid in vaccine distribution and provide better support to the state’s health care system.

“The stress that has hit the healthcare system, from COVID-19, has been very significant, particularly for our nurses,” Tucker said. “We’ll be supporting and putting forth some information to help our institutions expand their nursing options, so that we can provide the state with the healthcare resources and employees that they need.”