W.Va. Schools Superintendent discusses how radically different school could look

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- West Virginia Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch knows the 2020-2021 school year will be unlike anything anyone could have ever imagined just a year ago.

West Virginia Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch knows the 2020-2021 school year will be unlike anything anyone could have ever imagined just a year ago.

Burch talked with WSAZ Thursday afternoon about everything from graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020, to summer sports and the disparity in broadband across the state for distance learning. He also spoke about the hard work teachers have put in under such unusual circumstances.

"I've commissioned a reentry taskforce," Burch said. "From everything from our public education teachers to administrators to state partners, clear down into public broadcasting. We want everybody to have a voice. Our advisory council is putting together right now what could the school year look like. Our goal is by the eighth of June to have some recommendations out, and really we're going to follow what some of the other states have done.

"We've got to be prepared with different scenarios. It's just to early right now to say definitively what school opening up in six to eight weeks will look like, but we need to be prepared."

Burch said he is hoping to have recommendations from the group by June 8. The superintendent said while it's too early to say exactly what the school year will look like, it most certainly will be different than any other school year.

He also knows that a one-size-fits-all approach won't work when the return happens. Some counties, like border counties, are experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, while other more rural counties are only seeing a handful.

"We need to also be ready," Burch said. "So there's going to be contingency plans, and as we begin to roll out this advisory council's recommendations for schools, we want to also make sure we give scenarios to individual communities that are going to need it. You know, what does it look like if there is a spike and we have to think of school differently, or you know, can we go back to some normalcy in some areas that are not experiencing those?"

Wednesday, the CDC released guidelines, of what they think can be done to keep students safe as the world works to live with COVID-19. They include things like eating lunch in the classroom, to using every other seat on the bus, and having limited interaction throughout the school day.

On Thursday, WSAZ asked Gov. Jim Justice about the guidelines.

"Well, I think we still got time. If you watch the guidelines out of D.C., they continue to change, continue to get more strenuous or soft. We got time. When we go back to school. it may be we delay school to start or may not start til October first. I wouldn't get too wound up about it right now," Justice said after his daily news briefing.

Burch said the CDC guidelines are just that -- guidelines. He will continue to follow the guidance set forth by the state's top health officials and the governor.

Burch says the most heartwarming thing throughout all of this has been the sense of community in each district.
During the pandemic, he’s emphasized the fact that the wants all students to know they have one caring adult in their lives.

“I think our children have realized there is more than one caring adult. And the sense of community at the local level,” Burch said, “has been amazing." As for his teachers during all of this: “Our teachers are absolute rock stars and I think that is the only way to describe it. “

He says that what they’ve been asked to do and what they’ve done during this period has been absolutely amazing, engaging students, ensuring their safety and well-being.

BURCH ON GRADUATION
"Many of our districts have worked on alternative plans contingency plans and we are actually working very closely as the Gov. opens up more businesses working with them working with our districts to come up with a timeline to where it’s safe to have live graduations and what those perimeters look like.

"Right now we don’t know what the size limit will be. Some of our classes are very , very large but superintendents have also talked to us about these outdoor graduations being able to actually be socially distant. Working with parents and local health officials it may need some social distancing some precautions such as masks and what not but our goal is to make sure these students do have an opportunity for a live graduation."

ON REOPENING
"It cannot be one size fits all. We are going to have to be prepared to be proactive yet immediately reactive if we do hit spikes in the fall. We’ve got to be prepared to know what it looks like to open up the northern, eastern, and throughout the state and I’ll tell you, our 55 superintendents are joining us on that advisory council and they are all going to be prepared when August hits and we start back."

ON A LATER SCHOOL YEAR START
"I am glad the governor mentioned that because these scenarios I talk about you are going to have about four different categories that we are going to be focusing on. We all hope that it’s back to normal, we are potentially prepared it could be back to normal with some modifications, or as you heard the governor say today it could be back with a delayed start or heaven forbid back to remote learning."

ON REMOTE LEARNING AND THE CHALLENGES
"We’ve continued to applaud our teachers they’ve done an amazing job of engaging students in a variety of ways and many across the state, and now, here most recently across the nation have heard me say that public education, I’ve always believed is the great equalizer. It is the great equalizer, and this pandemic has shown that unless we tackle this issue of equitable access that we are going to have a larger and larger gap."

ON OVERCOMING THE SUMMER, (and now) PANDEMIC SLUMP
"I am not only worried about the achievement gap I am worried about the social and emotional gap. Think about a kindergartner that potentially left on March 13 and will not be back into a classroom until mid or late August. So almost a six month period that classroom routines, the social and emotional development that we would typically see during a school year has been disrupted. So we are going to have a lot of work to do in August beyond just the achievement gap."

ON CDC GUIDELINES
"I actually wasn’t surprised by the CDC’s recommendations. We have Dr. Clay Marsh, Secretary Crouch and Dr. Slemp, They’ve been very, very realistic with us about what to prepare for, they’ve been ahead of some of the information we’ve gotten from the federal government and they’ve tended to be spot on. They all a part of helping us think through what this opening of school looks like."

ON WHAT A SCHOOL DAY COULD LOOK LIKE
"It’s interesting the first thing I was asked, ‘Clayton how are we going to do social distancing with kindergartners?’ They play, they touch, but I think we are going to have to have some serious conversations about what a new normal could look like. And even with minor modifications you know are we going to see a school day that now includes masks? Gloves? Are we going to see a school day where we need to be thinking about a different way to maybe have lunch where we are not going to large cafeterias anymore but staying within our classrooms? And the hope is those minor modifications keep us healthy and safe and we don’t have to go to the more extreme."

EMOTIONAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS OF SCHOOL
"We just heard from another state I believe it was the superintendent in Oklahoma who stated that their teachers have found it is grace over grades. This idea that we have to focus on these soft skills, the social emotional skills as much as the grades and it’s going to be so important in August."

ON SUMMER SPORTS
"Bernie Dolan (WVSSAC) has been a great partner and he’s joined our task force and he’s going to be working directly with DHHR to put out that guidance and he’s really laying it out in phases that align with the Governor’s Comeback. So you are probably going to see some guidance from Bernie, go over to the Governor on what does June conditioning look like? Are we going to be able to condition even with small groups are we going to get access to the weight rooms late in June? And then in July he’s got these opportunities for three-week practices and I think Bernie is going to be laying out an entire plan for the districts to begin moving forward."

ON MARCHING BANDS
Guidance on marching bands will be included in the details that come down around the same time as summer sports/activities. We expect to have more information by they June 8 timeline. We expect a lot of parallels.

ON THE LIFE LESSON THE CLASS OF 2020 IS GETTING
"I think we really need to go back and congratulate the class of 2020. This is a group of students that have experienced something no other graduating class in our history have experienced. But I do believe they are going to be resilient."

“The class of 2020 is even ahead of the curve from me you know, I am the one that feels like I am playing catch-up with the new way to communicate and the new normal.“

The full interview is included on the video segments with this story.