Chris Schulz Published

W.Va. Schools Still Dealing With Effects Of COVID-19 Pandemic

A vacant classroom with rows of wooden desks and chairs.Arria Belli/Wikimedia Commons

Four years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic changed daily life for everyone, but the adjustments were perhaps most acute for schools and students.

Then a deputy superintendent, now State Superintendent Michele Blatt spoke with Chris Schulz about adapting learning for the COVID-19 pandemic, and its continued effects on the state’s schools. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Schulz: Can you explain to me what that March was like four years ago? 

Blatt: We definitely had discussions about COVID and what we were hearing from other states and around the world, kind of putting plans in place. But a lot of the discussions, especially with our local health officials and the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) were that there will be some mitigation strategies that we want to put in place, that we will not be closing down schools or anything like that. So we were kind of really caught off guard when the governor did that on March 13, shut down schools and sent everyone home on that Friday. 

Everything really happened fast. We had to have all hands on deck, of course, in our counties, and here at the Department of Education, to start thinking about how we were going to not only teach the children from home, but also provide meals and other services that the school system provides for them.

Schulz: I’ve heard from other educators across the state that the turnaround was just like, you know, 48 hours or less, in some cases. How did that come together, and what was the top priority for schools across the state?

Blatt: I think initially there was a big focus on “How are we going to educate the students?” And then within a couple of days it was “We’ve got to make sure that meals are provided to all these students.” We know that in a rural state like West Virginia, the internet’s not something that we could rely on in all of our schools. So we actually started working with superintendents immediately to determine which ones had virtual programs already existing in their counties, which ones had learning management systems that would work to support something like this, and then ramping up the virtual school system that we have here at the Department of Education that serves many counties. 

And then thinking about – what about the students that do not have internet service, did not have computers or something available at that point at home? And how would we provide services for those students? There was a lot of our counties initially, that first week or so, we were deploying computers out to the schools, whether it was delivery through the buses, or they were having on-site pickups, so that all the students had their devices at home, a lot of ordering and trying to get in additional computers so that every student had one to work from. But then also a lot of our counties had to rely initially on working through practice of activities and worksheets that we actually ended up distributing in many counties as we distributed the meals on the bus routes.

Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about the challenges of those lower classes, those younger students, because so much of their learning is experiential, it’s play-based. How was that addressed as the pandemic progressed and extended into months?

Blatt: I know that many of our elementary schools worked together not only to provide virtual lessons, and the ones that students were able to join, they actually had live sessions with those students. It was students joining the [Microsoft] Teams meetings so that they were actually able to see the students and the students could interact with their teachers. We also had many counties that put together activity boxes.

I know here in Kanawha County, they put together boxes with Playdough, balls, coloring books, crayons and different things like that, and distributed those into different neighborhoods and things, because we know that’s so important for those young learners to continue to stay engaged in activities as well. It was really, as I said earlier, an all hands on deck and learning as we went, but what are the resources that we could get out into the homes and into the neighborhoods that we serve?

Schulz: As the pandemic progresses, did new issues emerge? What were those?

Blatt: Well, I think that continued to be the priority, providing instruction to our students, whether virtually or through some type of packet, and then making sure that all of our students receive their meals, even through the weekends and things. Then we really started focusing on how we could expand the internet access across the state. 

The governor initiated a program that we called Kids Connect. We actually deployed staff from various places, along with the National Guard, to actually put wireless routers and Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots of all of our schools. They were in the libraries in various communities, so that students who did not have access to the internet would have a way to, if parents were able to take them to the site, they could access their information, or at least download the activities that they needed for the week. So as some of the basic needs started to be met, we started looking at how we can expand access and other things that our students needed to get through the pandemic.

Schulz: We’ve heard a lot since students came back to the classroom about the impact that this has had on mental health. I don’t hear as much about the impact on teachers and staff. Is that something that was being discussed in the department as well?

Blatt: Our teachers and staff were, of course, concerned for themselves and for their own families. But also, they were used to seeing these students every day, taking care of these students, a lot of times actually putting eyes on the students to make sure that they were being taken care of. I think our teachers and staff were really stressed throughout the pandemic. They were trying to provide instruction in a way that they had not in the past, cooks trying to put meal boxes together, weeks at a time and making sure those are distributed. The only person to really see some of these families was bus drivers that were out delivering these things to the students. 

I think it really took a toll on our teachers and staff. The pandemic took a toll on everyone and the concerns and things that you have personally and with your own family, but when you’re in a school, you consider those students your family as well. And not being able to be with their students and to help them through a lot of this, I think that was something that we did talk a lot about and address during the pandemic. I think we were aware that there would be some mental health issues and some other things when students return to school.

Schulz: What can you tell me about that process to bring students back to the classroom?

Blatt: Once the vaccine became available, we were instrumental here at the department to help coordinate all of the vaccine clinics across the counties because the schools were the best place to bring the communities together and to provide those vaccines. There was a lot of time and attention focused on that prior to discussions of bringing the students back. Once we started looking at the vaccines becoming more available, and for younger children, then it was time to start working with the governor’s office and everyone to think about when are we going to start putting our students back in school. 

We had weekly, at a minimum, weekly calls with all of our superintendents throughout the pandemic. And so we started looking, kind of researching together what is the best way, knowing that our counties would need to make some of these decisions with their local boards in their communities. When we first started back to school, we had students on a variety of schedules. Some had a hybrid schedule, where they were in the building two or three days and still remote, virtual learning for a couple of days. Others did like split A-B schedules, so they had half the kids in the morning, half the kids in the afternoon. There was a variety of ways that our counties chose to do that, and they had that local flexibility, because all of our communities are different and needed to be able to meet the needs of their local community.

Schulz: Four years on, what do you see as the legacy of COVID-19 and the pandemic within West Virginia schools?

Blatt: I think we all say all the time, we never thought that we would experience a pandemic. As we start looking back at the schools and the legacy, we’re still struggling to regain the learning that was lost for our students. You hear a lot of talk about, as you mentioned earlier, the mental health or behavior issues in the school. We have students that did not consistently have school for four years. And when you’re looking at your younger learners, they didn’t learn the social interactions, and the way that school works. So we still have third, fourth, fifth graders that are not only catching up on their learning, but also just how to get through the day and how school works, and how to make friends and all of those different things. 

I think we are in a better place in the long run, because I think people really got to see the value of public education, and all of the different things that’s provided through our public schools. Virtual learning works for some students, but the majority of our students need a teacher in front of them, and they need that daily interaction with other children.