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BOE changes stance on in-person learning at emergency meeting

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Jan 29, 2021

Jefferson County students will return to five-day in-person learning on Monday. Toni Milbourne

CHARLES TOWN — In an emergency meeting last week, the Jefferson County Board of Education changed their decision on having students attend school in-person, as opposed to the planned virtual education format. The board had initially voted on Jan. 14 to keep students home, rather than follow the directive of the West Virginia Board of Education to have students in grades K-8 return to school.

The board’s decision to not follow the state directive could, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said, lead to sanctions against the county board. The state, Gibson said, controls what constitutes “educational minutes,” and could determine that virtual school would not count toward those minutes, potentially leading to an extension of the school year. The state could, Gibson said, also take over the county’s system, as part of sanctions placed for not complying with sending children back to school.

With those consequences looming, the five-member board voted in a 4-1 vote to approve a plan to send all on-site students back to traditional instruction, beginning on Monday. Board member Donna Joy voted against the motion, after being told by board president Kathy Skinner that she could not recuse herself from the vote. Joy had initially recused, because she felt she didn’t have enough information to make an educated decision.

Students began a limited return to the classroom last Friday, when those who had yet to be in the school building this year returned for an orientation to the new safety protocols in place.

Monday then served as a remote day, with Tuesday and Wednesday planned to bring in student groups for in-person learning. One group would attend Tuesday and Wednesday, while another group would remain virtual and then would switch for the end of the week, with all students returning for five-day instruction Feb. 1.

All students in the lower grades would return, per the order of the state Board of Education, while high school student attendance would continue to be tied to the COVID-19 color map. A red designation would call for high schoolers to attend school remotely. A weekly decision will be made on the map designation’s effect on student attendance.

Students who selected the Jefferson Virtual Academy will not be affected; they will continue in a virtual capacity.

Discussions during the meeting focused on the concerns of safety that led the board to initially decide against in-person learning against the state directive.

Gibson provided a break-down of the number of teachers and other staffers who have received the coronavirus vaccine.

“There have been 593 who have received the first round of the vaccine, with 165 remaining on the wait list for the next first dose round,” Gibson said, mentioning those waiting to receive the first dose would begin this week, with the second doses for the 593 beginning Thursday.

In addition to the lengthy discussion on the “return-to-learn” plan, the board also discussed providing funding to the Jefferson County Health Department to hire an individual specifically to conduct trace contact research pertaining to students and staff.

“We can give them funding to hire a contact tracer specifically for Jefferson County Schools,” Gibson said.

In addition, an online tracking source will provide information on each school regarding any cases of COVID-19. The chart which will show infection rate will be available on the board’s website.

According to Gibson, a safety hotline will be established where anyone who sees an individual not complying with safety guidelines on school property can report that individual. A question was posed to Gibson on whether the reports of noncompliance would extend outside of the school location; however, she indicated it was meant for violations on school property.