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WSAZ Now Desk | W.Va. State Superintendent on decision to return to in-person learning

Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 1:19 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - On Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced students in the state would be returning to in-person learning starting on Jan. 19.

The governor said that all elementary and middle school students would return to in-person learning five days a week starting that day. High school students are also allowed to return five days a week, with in-person beginning on Jan. 19, provided their county is not in the red zone on the color code map.

On Thursday, West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch spoke about the decision on the WSAZ Now Desk. When asked about the choice to not closely follow the county alert system anymore, Burch said, “It did guide us through the fall semester. But early on, we had superintendents, counselors, nurses, even parents telling us ‘we are really confused.’ The map is really ultra-conservative. We are not really sure that the spread and the transmission in the schools is matching the community spread.’ We have been tracking that data for four months. And after four months, that’s actually right. Both at our state level and national level, the community spread doesn’t really reflect the schools. The schools we thought were really, really safe. Well, after four months of data, we saw that they are actually the safest place for our children.”

Burch said often times, when schools would close, they would in turn see the community spread increase.

“Our children, our staff, if they follow the mitigation strategies are very, very safe. Over 1,000 buildings in the state of West Virginia and we were averaging 5-30 outbreaks a month. The average outbreak about 4. So our schools were doing a really, really good job of mitigating outbreaks quickly, controlling it within the schools and we are just not seeing the science behind the spread especially for those younger learners.”

Burch says local superintendents have been involved with the decision to return to in-person learning five days a week.

“As a matter of fact, they have been tracking this. We meet every couple of weeks sometimes, especially during the fall. Once a month, we would have the data reported out to them. And the superintendents association, all 55 superintendents, I received a letter in early December this month from them that basically asked the same thing we were considering, ‘get us back to more in-person, the data is not matching.’ Our children for all the reasons the governor gave yesterday need to be in school. We have abuse and neglect cases, we have children that are so far behind, children that are just getting lost off the grid--remote and virtual is not working. So they really voiced their concerns early on. And then everybody from our health officials to even the CDC and Dr. Fauci have really been focused on our schools need to be at least the one place that is open.”

The governor said Wednesday there were several reasons children needed to be back in school, stating that one third of kids are failing at least one core class and the number of referrals to Child Protective Services about children are down 50 percent.

When asked about working to get students caught up, Burch said they knew there was going to be learning loss associated with the pandemic, however, he says they are working diligently to do everything they can to bridge the gap.

“No matter how well we tried to engage our students, the virtual platform did not work for many,” said Burch. “In and out of school. I mean we had a superintendent tell us yesterday that since March 13, she actually has a group of students she can track that has had only 20 days of in-person instruction. The inconsistency in and out of school is not good for children. They need the consistency. And we are seeing it reflected in a snapshot we took of the grades. In a typical year, we may see 5-7 maybe 7 percent of children struggling mid-year and when you see 35-38 percent at the same time this year, we knew anecdotally that we were having a problem, and now the superintendents know that’s why it is so important to get these children back in school.”

Burch said there is going to be a lot of weight on teachers’ shoulders as students return to make sure students are getting up to speed.

“I met with a group of 3rd and 4th grade teachers two weeks ago up in Ohio County and they were already planning strategies on ‘if you just get me my children back in-person, this is what my spring may look like. I may need to target standards. school may need to look a little different, we may need to double-down on the basics of reading, writing, math.’ And then also we have to be prepared that maybe this summer we really need to look at some summer support programs.”

Burch said there is also a big concern among older students, specifically high school seniors. He says the state recently received data from the Chancellor of Higher Education, showing that they are thousands of applications down on the FAFSA.

“We are really, really concerned are they ready to go off to college in the fall,” said Burch.

Burch also touched on a number of other topics, including a response to the teachers’ unions saying they were not included in the decision and still feel it isn’t safe to return in-person for a number of different reasons, as well as the vaccine roll-out for teachers and service personnel. The full interview is attached to this article.

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