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BOE votes to delay getting back in class

KINGWOOD — Preston County students will continue remote learning  until Feb. 8, when the county board of education will re-evaluate a return to in-person learning.

The board made the 4-1 decision Monday after more than 90 minutes of  discussion that included school officials and teachers.

 All were looking for the same thing: A safe re-entry to the classroom, Board Member Jeanne Dreisbach noted.

“We need to work together,” she said. “We can’t turn this into an us vs. them.”

 The discussion came after Gov. Jim Justice said he wants students back in the classroom by Jan. 19. The State Board of Education is also to discuss returning to school when it meets Wednesday.

The successful motion wasn’t the first voted on by the board. Board President Jack Keim proposed that Superintendent Steve Wotring be given the option of bringing students back in person if the county were out of the red on the state COVID-19 map for five consecutive days.

There was discussion whether to refer to “red” or the county’s rate of positivity, because the governor might change the colors on the map again.  

In the end, the motion fell 1-4, with only Keim voting for it and Dreisbach, Bruce Huggins, Pam Feathers and Jeff Zigray against it. Those numbers went the other way on the motion that passed.

The board also instructed Wotring to devise a plan for returning to school on a staggered schedule, with only a portion of students attending class each day.

 Some of the teachers who addressed the board said classroom size, which might be lowered by bringing in only some classes each day,  is a concern in how the virus might be spread.

South Preston teacher Debbie Funk said she has 27 students in her classroom, seated no more than a foot and a half apart.

“I want [students]  back. I love them, and I love working with them. But it’s not safe,” Funk said.

“We need our kids in school. We need to be able to social distance better,” Feathers said.

 What will change by Feb. 8? For one thing, Zigray said, all school staff may have been vaccinated against the virus by then.

 Wotring said 150 staff members were vaccinated Friday, and he’s been told vaccinations will be given each Friday, though he wasn’t told how many will be available each time.

The staff is getting the Moderna vaccine. There is a 28-day gap between the first and second doses. Health officials have advised that it will be 14 days after the second jab before the vaccination will be at full effectiveness.

Several of those who spoke, who included representatives of the American Federation of Teachers Preston County, Preston County Education Association and West Virginia Education Association, asked that students not return to classrooms until all staff is vaccinated.

Wotring said he expects vaccination clinics to last the entire school year, given the disbursal of vaccine.

Board members also talked about the difficulties of  remote learning. Since March 2020, Preston students have only been in the classroom two months total, Keim noted.

 He noted the 81 emails he received on the possible return to school. Only about six favored going back now, he said.

“I looked at these emails, and I’d see those parents worried about their kids’ education,” Keim said.

 Before the vote, Wotring asked the board to think of students. He told board members they have no idea the “deplorable” conditions many students struggle with at home, and parents who are doing their best in horrible situations. 

“Every single day that we do not have the kids in front of us, they are losing. Every single day they are losing,” he said. “Even our straight A students are losing. Because our parents are struggling. And I don’t mean this with disrespect to a single parent. They’re not teachers. They didn’t sign up to be teachers.

 “Yes, we’re afraid. Yes, it’s dangerous. All of those things,” Wotring said. “But that’s our job. Tell the nurse, tell the health care worker,  ‘You know  what, you don’t have to come to work because it’s dangerous.’”

It’s not the job they expected, he said. 

But, “Our job is to show up everyday for kids … And just because all of a sudden the world has changed, these are still our kids,” Wotring said.

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