Emily Allen Published

State Superintendent Says Pandemic Highlights ‘Inequity’ Among Students

Capitol, West Virginia State Capitol

Before schools closed for the coronavirus pandemic earlier in March, state superintendent Clayton Burch said he always thought of public education as a “great equalizer.” 

“After March 13, I don’t know that I would stand here and continue saying that, when we found out how many equity issues we identified,” Burch said Monday at a meeting of the House Education Committee.

Burch told House delegates that the West Virginia Department of Education has spent months learning about disparities in students’ access to technology and internet services, mental health resources, as well as helping students with special needs.

WVDE found more than half the state’s students lack reliable internet access away from their brick and mortar schools, Burch said, and the department also discovered that just a few more than 20 school districts had additional nurses, social workers and counselors on hand for students with increased emotional needs resulting from the pandemic. 

“We have some major, major equity issues when it comes to social, emotional and mental health,” Burch said.  

Solution Now A ‘Band-Aid’ For Greater, More Expensive Problem

Some of the state’s solutions for technology and broadband access are a “Band-Aid” at best, Burch said.

That includes the state’s “Kids Connect Initiative,” for which the state is spending $6 million on outfitting schools, parks and libraries with hot spot technology that students can access outside a brick and mortar structure.  

Students living in West Virginia’s more rural communities, farther away from the institutions that will host these connectivity points, will still struggle to complete more remote schoolwork from home. For students in this position, WVDE says school districts will offer students transportation to the hotspots. 

“I appreciate the thousand points of WiFi that we’re targeting,” Burch said. “I think it’s a great project, but it is a Band-Aid. And it is still just a Band-Aid. Many of the counties are going above and beyond using these dollars trying to get service directly into the homes.”

School districts are supposed to provide transportation for students who wish to use the hotspots, and don’t live close enough to get their themselves.

Del. Lisa Zuckoff, D-Marshall, asked Burch on Monday what it would cost to upgrade broadband services statewide, so all students have access.  

“It’s so much. It’s just so, so much,” Burch said. “We don’t have six to 10 years to wait for fiber to get to every home. So, I think the question becomes, how do we fund something they say takes so much work? Because our children, they can’t wait.”

Some schools, using their own money from a state Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF), are better honing broadband access, Burch said.  

West Virginia has allocated $78 million total to all 55 school districts from the ESSERF, through money from the CARES Act. 

Top receivers include Kanawha County, at more than $8.3 million, Cabell at nearly $5 million, and Wood and Berkeley counties hovering around $4 million. 

More than 60 percent of those funds are dedicated to technology for remote and virtual learning by Aug. 3, according to WVDE. More than 50,000 West Virginia parents had registered for online learning Monday, according to incomplete data from counties to WVDE.

Other funding, including another $8.6 million from the CARES Act and money WVDE saved canceling in-person conferences for personnel, are being channeled into projects that address three tiers of the state’s student inequities.

Those tiers are services to help students’ social and emotional wellbeing, services to address technology disparities and aimed at narrowing the state’s achievement gap. 

Classroom Sizes, Ventilation

WVDE also posted a list of school districts that have shared their reopening plans with the state office, and whether those plans are on par with WVDE’s guidelines for remote learning, transitions to remote learning, cleanliness, social distancing and preparedness.

Several schools as of Monday afternoon still did not have policies in place for distancing children in school buses and remote learning. Burch said schools have until their first days of class to solve this and share a new plan with his department. 

Educators on the House Education Committee, which met Monday, asked Burch for specifics on classroom sizes, social-distancing protocols and administrative items like sick leave for teachers and logged absences for students. 

Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, said he’ll be teaching a civics class with 28 students in a classroom too small for social distancing. 

“I just don’t see how it’s possible,” Thompson said of seating students at least six feet apart. “I have 30 desks and we’ve reduced it down to 28 [students] for this one particular class in high school civics, where all the students face one direction and I have maybe three, five feet in front of the classroom, for like a walkway exit.”

“I’ll tell you my recommendation, and this’ll be Clayton’s recommendation,” Burch said. “Those are high school students in a classroom of 28 that does not have the space … my reading of this would be they can’t social distance, there’s no reason those students cannot wear a mask.”

“Who would make decision?” Thompson asked. “I think that my classroom is too small for that number of students. … where do we go then?”

Burch said an administrator or local superintendent will have to decide what to do with Thompson’s classroom. “The county plans are going to have to drive this, but as we review them, we’ll look for those consistencies,” he added.

Del. Mark Dean, R-Mingo, is a school principal in Mingo County. He had questions Monday concerning classroom size limits and earlier initiatives from WVDE that favor collaborative, team activities between students.

Burch said school districts have the flexibility to determine in their plans how to appropriately limit the number of students in one room, including separating classes into groups and staggering the days they’re in school, or innovative seating arrangements.

Burch said schools with aging buildings and ventilation concerns are welcome to invite WVDE officials to a walkthrough of their facilities, to ensure HVAC and water are running smoothly.

“Because these places have been shut down since March, we’re asking them to also do a walkthrough of your water system,” Burch said. “Make sure your water system is up to date, you flush, it is prepared. … For any county that would like assistance with that, we have a crew that goes out and does that walk through with them.”

Reopening Community Colleges, Universities

Chancellor Sarah Tucker for the Higher Education Policy Commission told the House Education Committee that Monday was a “big day in higher ed,” as Concord University, Glenville State College, Fairmont State University and West Liberty University reopened campuses to students.

West Virginia State University was the first to reopen Aug. 10, followed by Bluefield State College Aug. 13. Marshall, Shepherd and West Virginia universities plan to reopen later this month.

Each school’s policy for reopening is its own, but Tucker said Monday all public schools had to follow guidelines from the state – including statewide testing of university students.

Students at community colleges are left out from this requirement, Tucker said, because they don’t have students living in dormitory halls.

As members of the committee heard from Tucker on schools that have reopened or are prepared to do so, news broke that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was returning to online learning after COVID-19 breakouts quickly hit the campus at the start of the semester.

Tucker acknowledged these concerns in her remarks, but also outlined ways that staying home could harm young adults.

“We have a lot of students who are neither in school and they aren’t working,” Tucker said, “and I do believe that idle hands often lead to things that we don’t want to see … I’m very worried about our students becoming disconnected from our schools.”

Schools are required to reopen for K-12 by Sept. 8.