CHARLESTON — After several relatively large county school systems decided to keep their classrooms closed longer amid the coronavirus pandemic, the West Virginia Board of Education ordered them to open.
The state board voted Wednesday, with no members dissenting, to ban counties from having countywide “remote learning.” Remote learning is when a district doesn’t offer any in-person instruction, and instead teaches children only online or through paper handouts.
“Remote learning is not teaching,” board President Miller Hall said. “Remote learning is, ‘I’m going to give you a packet and you look at it and do the questions and turn it in.’ But here’s the problem: It’s not equity, because some of them don’t have a computer.”
Many students don’t have sufficient internet access, among other obstacles they might face.
But the state board and the Department of Education that it oversees haven’t yet provided any detailed data showing how much students struggled during the fall.
Gov. Jim Justice had strongly urged counties to reopen classrooms starting Jan. 19, but he didn’t mandate it, saying he would respect local control.
The state board, which has now mandated it, has the constitutional power to act independently of the governor without him being able to reverse its decisions.
The state board members, unlike county school board members, are not elected. They’re appointed by the governor for nine-year terms and confirmed by the state Senate.
Justice appointed most of the current members. Hall and board Vice President Tom Campbell said the governor did not order them to make this move.
The state board’s vote allows parents who enrolled their children in online-only options, such as the statewide “virtual” option or local county online-only programs, to keep their students in those programs.
For parents who want their children back in school in person, though, counties will now have to offer at least two days of in-person learning for all students each week.
Earlier Wednesday, the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to stay remote until Feb. 8. But the Kanawha board’s vote included the proviso that, if the state board said that wasn’t allowed, Kanawha would go with “blended learning” until at least Feb. 8.
Kanawha’s blended-learning path sends separate groups of students, divided alphabetically by last name, on alternating in-person and online learning days. This reduces the number of students in a building at the same time.
The Monongalia County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to stay on remote learning countywide through Feb. 12. That board’s vote included no proviso for what the state might do, so Monongalia, and other counties that might have voted similarly, will now have to decide whether to bow to the state board or buck it.
The state did not decide on punishment for noncompliance Wednesday, but it ordered the state superintendent to monitor counties on the issue.
Monongalia board member Sara Anderson said Wednesday afternoon that she doesn’t yet know what her board will do, but that might become more clear in the coming 48 hours.
“I know this isn’t an easy decision for any board of education. But I think, fundamentally, local context matters a lot,” Anderson said.
She noted that West Virginia University’s spring semester starts next week. Its main campus is in the county. She said remote learning isn’t perfect “but we’re living in a pandemic.”
“We can’t ignore that, and I’m not comfortable with people who are willing to do so,” she said.
The Cabell County Board of Education on Tuesday voted to return to school on a three-day blended model, delaying the return to five-day, in-person instruction until all willing employees have received the COVID-19 vaccine, while Wayne County Board of Education members voted to follow a blended learning model that will include two days of in-person learning and two days of virtual instruction beginning Jan. 19.
There are some exceptions to the state board’s order, including one allowing high schools to be closed in counties that are red on the governor’s color-coded school reopening map. The map colors are based on the spread of COVID-19 across whole counties, not just within schools.
That map is still being released daily on the state Department of Health and Human Resources website, under the “County Alert System” tab you see when you click the link for COVID-19 alerts and updates.
The order says high schools “will move to remote learning the day after the county turns red” on the map, and that “high schools may stay in remote learning until the following Monday.” But the order seems to allow high schools to reopen in red at the county superintendent’s discretion.
The order doesn’t ban counties from closing individual schools and classrooms because of COVID-19. But it says this can be done only “when a specific health need related to that classroom or school is identified irrespective of the county’s (map) color,” and “such closures shall be of limited duration and related to the specific health need of the school or classroom.”
Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t open to the public; it was streamed online with no chance for live delegations. Hall said the next meeting would be open, “unless it gets real, real bad, in person,” saying someone called out making such a vote at an online-only meeting.