Liz McCormick Published

State Pushes Back On Counties In Remote Learning, Says They Must Offer In-Person Option


Just three West Virginia counties are still offering remote-only schooling, but that could soon change.

In an emergency meeting held by the West Virginia Board of Education Wednesday, board members discussed Marion, Gilmer and Taylor County schools — the only counties remaining in the state that have opted to continue with remote-only learning.

This is a change from Monday, when seven counties were still opting to keep students working from home.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said in the meeting that Gilmer County is asking for assistance, although he did not specify what type of assistance the county is requesting. Taylor County has opted to follow its own metric system, according to Burch, and Marion County has opted to stick with a blended model and continue to follow the state’s coronavirus map — keeping all students remote when a county is orange or red. This is what all counties followed in the fall.

The state school board and Burch discussed at length why students should be back in brick-and-mortar classrooms, citing educational and social-emotional needs.

“Closures disrupt school based services such as immunization, school meals, mental health, psychological support,” said board member James Wilson, referencing a chart he said was from the World Health Organization. “Keeping children at home also affects the ability of parents to work which comes with its own list of risks.”

Members argued that all students under age 15 should be attending in-person school full-time, pointing to health experts who say COVID-19 does not transmit at the same rate for children as it does for adults. Board member Stanley Maynard said safety concerns also go beyond COVID-19.

“Safety is not just a one-dimensional thing,” Maynard said. “I think it’s crucial, when we talk about the safety of the emotional aspect of one caring adult — somebody who knows their name, somebody who they know loves them, cares for them, and that’s a teacher. And the safest workplace that we have in the state of West Virginia is a school. The safest place for our children is at a school.”

Board member Debra Sullivan also spoke, and while she agreed that physical classrooms are where students should be, she encouraged members to hear from Gilmer, Taylor and Marion counties for detailed reasons why they opted to continue with remote-only learning.

“Let’s show courtesy to invite folks in and let them share with us what their concerns are,” Sullivan said. “They may not have [substitute teachers]. That’s a problem … They’re all different, and I just think we need to hear what it is they have to say.”

Board President Miller Hall, however, did not agree and gave an impassioned speech saying there’s no excuse for them not to be in school when health officials say it’s safe.

“We did give a mandate that they would follow, and we gave them some flexibility and options they could use,” Hall said. “You can’t tell me that those kids … cannot go in [the schools] and social distance. I can’t take that. We’re not going to accept that … This board is charged today to come up with ways to deal with the ones that continue to say ‘we’re not gonna do what we’re supposed to be doing.’ I cannot accept that.”

The state school board was provided with various options to consider if counties did not comply, such as withholding state aid to a county. Members were also told that the state board or parents could bring legal action against a county for “failure to provide a thorough and efficient education,” or the board could require schools to limit extracurricular activities, such as sports, if that county does not provide some form of in-person schooling.

None of these scenarios were committed to, however, only discussed, and the board did not vote on penalties for the three counties.

Instead, the board opted to give Gilmer, Taylor and Marion County schools until Jan. 26 to provide an in-person option or present a convincing reason why they must remain remote.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting emailed each of the three county superintendents directly and heard back from Taylor and Marion counties.

Taylor County Superintendent Christy Miller said the “Taylor County Board of Education has called an emergency meeting for tomorrow, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. The board will be discussing the response to the West Virginia Board of Education’s mandate.”

Marion County Superintendent Randall Farley said he made a recommendation to his county school board, but the “board disagreed with me and made a motion that did not comply with the state’s motion for increasing in-person learning. Our local board is meeting on Friday morning to reconsider their decision. We will await the outcome on Friday.”

Burch said during Wednesday’s meeting that Gilmer County Schools are expected to have a meeting on Thursday evening.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia also officially filed a complaint Wednesday evening in the Kanawha County Circuit Court “to protect the health and safety of students, teachers and the community in West Virginia.”

In a post on the union’s website, AFT-WV said it is seeking “a temporary restraining order and/or injunctive relief to enjoin in-person teaching in Kanawha County until all education employees have the opportunity to have the second vaccine which is scheduled to be provided in the first and second week of February.”

AFT-WV is also seeking to ensure county boards have control of their school systems as they navigate reopening.

A week ago, the West Virginia Board of Education voted unanimously to require all 55 counties to return to in-person learning — with some flexibility. Counties were allowed to consult their local health departments to determine what’s best for their districts.

Under the ruling, pre-K through 8th grade are no longer allowed to offer a remote-only option, although virtual school is still permitted for families who do not feel comfortable sending their children to physical school buildings. Not all virtual options are alike, however, and neither are remote options.

The WVDE defines remote learning as self-paced and without face-to-face instruction. Some West Virginia teachers argue that’s not always the case, and some of their remote classrooms run similarly to a virtual classroom, which is often a real-time, video conference with a local teacher and classmates.

The WVDE offers a virtual option to all 55 counties called West Virginia Virtual School, but it’s asynchronous, and the teachers are often located out-of-state. Some West Virginia counties offer a local, virtual option, such as Jefferson Virtual Academy in Jefferson County, which is five days a week, real-time instruction over a video platform with a local teacher from a student’s school.

Additionally, under the state school board’s ruling, high schools are encouraged to offer in-person learning unless a county is red on the state’s coronavirus map.

Counties are also permitted to offer blended models, such as two days a week in-person and three days a week at home.

All schools, both public and private, are required to follow COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing.