FAYETTEVILLE — Following a July 8 announcement by Gov. Jim Justice that he and state education leaders are targeting a Sept. 8 tentative resumption of student instruction in classrooms in West Virginia's 55 counties, county superintendents and boards of education are now moving to cement reopening plans.
"No one wants us to go back to school more than I do," Justice said in a press release. "But, at the end of the day, I'm going to do what I think is the best thing and safest thing for our kids.
"And I am not going to move forward with going back to school until I am absolutely as sure as I can be that our kids, teachers, service personnel and parents are going to be safe."
Fayette County Superintendent Gary Hough spent time the latter part of last week working with staff members to create a working school calendar for the coming term.
"We were able to come up with a calendar, but we haven't made it public yet," Hough said Friday. "We were able to come up with a calendar that gave us 180 days (and) have a little bit of flexibility. According to the governor, we can make certain days remote days if we so choose in advance."
The start date for teachers is pushed back to the last week of August, while students are set to return Sept. 8. The school term must still be completed by June 1, 2021.
The only difference now is to determine where break days may occur, Hough said. "We can make some of those break days what we call remote learning days, now that we've got a remote learning platform," he said. The action has to be approved by the Fayette County Board of Education.
Hough is working closely with Kanawha County Superintendent Tom Williams, since the Fayette school system has students who attend Riverside. "We have to align with Kanawha as much as we can." He says the two counties have potential Christmas breaks which are "very similar." Previously, the long Easter break had been whittled down to two days in Fayette. For Thanksgiving, Fayette students "could be going to school Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, or they could possibly be remote learning days, where they have assignments to do but they're counted as school days because it's done via technology," said Hough.
The revised calendar has yet to be presented to the board of education, and it's not on the agenda for the Tuesday, July 14 meeting. However, Hough said board members have been "brought up to speed" through continuing weekly updates.
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Every work day features a variety of employees cobbling together a plan to create a safe school environment this fall for traditional delivery of instruction, Hough said. And he hopes to see students and teachers in the classrooms if at all possible depending on the Covid-19 situation. "Of course, we want all students back," Hough said. "Our goal is to get the students back in school.
"But, at the same time, we know we've got to meet the needs of our parents and our children, too. ... We continue to look at ideas; we're looking at air filtration systems now and a multitude of things. Anything else we can do to make our entry more safe."
Virtual learning enrollment started July 13 and is being accepted during a three-week window for parents who have apprehensions with their children being in a physical classroom in 2020-21. "For those parents that have made that choice, that they're concerned, we want them to understand they will have to remain in (virtual learning program) for a semester," said Hough. "If they choose to make that their sole delivery source, we would rather have them in our platform instead of a home schooling platform (so) when they decide to return to school, they're on target with the rest of the students."
In that scenario, students will be at home, but it will not be home schooling in the traditional sense. "They are assigned to a teacher," said Hough. "Sometimes they could even be logged in (to) a class as it is occurring." Instruction will be assignment-oriented, and teachers will follow up with students virtually.
According to Anna Kincaid-Cline, associate superintendent of curriculum/technology/instruction, about 400 parents county-wide registered students for the program on the first day.
The virtual school curriculum and required tuition will be paid by Fayette County Schools, as the child will still be enrolled as a FCS student. A form can be submitted digitally. It can be accessed at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSemeEGm8HSnFF7LExItSa96_CGVKu8JV5oYt5-XWXlFrLGDJg/viewform. For more details, visit https://www.boe.faye.k12.wv.us/.
Details on virtual school and other school-related issues will be available via school messenger announcements, and enhanced video messaging will be unveiled later this summer on the FCS website.
A now-completed parent survey on the safety of returning to school received "quite a bit" of responses. "Parents have different opinions," said Hough. "We have parents that don't want their children back in school. And there have been big debates on whether to wear a mask or not wear a mask."
The survey will be provided to the board for its consumption.
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"We would like to be in a five-day-a-week format, we really would," says Hough. "We think we've got equipment in and issues in place; we want a five-day-a-week format."
"Just so our students get oriented, we're looking at a little bit of a staggered start right now," he continued. "We'll stagger them in so they learn the routine."
At bigger schools like Oak Hill High School, for example, administrators have looked at a modified block "so we minimize the movements throughout the day."
Once students arrive via bus, they will go directly to their classrooms "so we don't have them in congregate areas." Where possible, there will be one-way traffic flow in hallways to minimize interaction.
According to West Virginia Department of Education re-entry guidelines, no more than two children can be in a bus seat. "Those buses will be sanitized, of course," said Hough. On the buses, if students over 9 board while not wearing a mask, disposable masks will be provided. And, "If they don't have one (at school), we're going to provide at least one (reusable mask) to each student," said Hough. In a Zoom meeting Friday, principals received notification of allocations to purchase additional masks for their students.
Students will have to wear masks while moving in the hallways, the superintendent noted. In the classroom, student mask-wearing will not be necessary during instruction, as rooms are expected to be set up socially distanced.
In elementary schools, classes will remain together in cohort groups.
In most cases, lunches will be served in the classrooms and will already be set out for students. "They can have a hot lunch, but it might be in a Styrofoam container," Hough said.
The board of education just approved the purchase of thermometers to track temperatures of people entering school buildings, he said. Thermometers will be in place to make sure individuals don't exceed suggested temperature guidelines. In larger schools, where more haste is needed, infrared camera devices which read all temperatures and pick out the faces of anybody whom exhibits fever symptoms will be in place.
Teachers will do a quick screening in the morning, too. At some schools, depending on size, pedestal thermometers will be used to test the school community and visitors.
"We expect staff to have their masks on," he said. Options include face shields, of which the county currently has "a tremendous amount of these now that we can provide to our staff, bus drivers, etc. so there are adequate protections."
"If a student would come in with a fever and the parent can't come to get them, we will have standby Covid transportation," Hough explained. School buses "will be properly equipped with the right gear to keep the driver safe, and the student, and we will assist the student getting home and then re-sanitize the bus."
Possible Covid-19 testing is "still in the planning stages," said Hough. Student testing will not occur "only because of the mass quantity."
"We've talked about voluntary staff testing," he said. Local health centers have indicated they can be of assistance.
"If we want our children to be back in school, and we want our children to be participants in athletics and things that we want to do, it's really important that we take the precautions, follow the rules," he said of coming weeks. "We can help control this situation if we just take that time to be good citizens ourselves."
The school system is working "very closely" with the Fayette County Health Department to establish a safe reopening approach, Hough noted.
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