KINGWOOD — Preston County students will return to school Jan. 25 on a blended schedule in school two days a week, the board of education decided Friday.
The board said it felt forced into the decision by the State Board of Education and voted 5-0 on the proposal.
Principals will use next week to contact parents with their children’s schedules. Superintendent Steve Wotring also posted a video Friday on the Preston County Schools Facebook page, explaining the move.
On Monday, the board voted to keep students at home, studying remotely, until it met Feb. 8. Then it would decide if the incidence of COVID-19 had lessened and school employees had received sufficient vaccinations to return to school.
But Wednesday, the State Board of Education ordered pre-K through eighth grade students to return to school at least two days a week by Jan. 19. High school students will not return to school until the color-coded COVID map for the county is no longer red.
Board President Jack Keim said Friday that he was told as long as a plan is in place by Jan. 19 for returning to school, the county meets the mandate.
He’s not a fan of blended learning, the superintendent said, but believes it’s the best option now. By splitting students into different groups, each in school two days per week, social distancing can be observed, he said.
Only one-third of Preston’s school staff has been vaccinated, he said, so blended learning may help lessen the possible spread until all can receive the shots.
Parents still have the option of keeping their children totally virtual.
The board will meet again at 10 a.m. Feb. 19 to reconsider the decision.
Keim said he was part of a conference call with the West Virginia Schools Boards Association. Its lawyer said if counties don’t open schools, the state board could use that “as the lever to take over the county.”
Board Member Pam Feathers asked for a definition of take over. It would mean the local board would have no power, Wotring said.
The order gives counties authority they didn’t have before to close a single classroom, school or part of a school to control a virus outbreak or if there isn’t enough personnel to have school.
“I did a lot of research, and the blended model seems to be what is going on in the rest of the country,” Board Member Jeanne Dreisbach said, though she wishes all teachers and staff were vaccinated.
Board Member Jeff Zigray said, “If we have to go back to school, I believe that the blended model has a lot of logistical obstacles to overcome.” Keim agreed.
Feathers said she was passionate in her support of Monday’s board action, “and I do not feel any differently today.”
Huggins said everyone is working together as a team. “I don’t want us to lose focus on what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re here for the kids.”
Keim noted that in Fellowsville Elementary and Rowlesburg School, there are so few students they can safely attend classes four days a week, while students in schools with larger enrollments can go only two.
For example, a split kindergarten/first grade class at Rowlesburg has only nine students.
The superintendent said if the board ordered a blended model, that’s how it would be done. Principals at the meeting said students who are struggling may need more time at school, and that will be considered.
“I trust our principals to make the best decisions for kids,” Wotring said.
He praised principals, who prepared the new schedules. “They had two days, and I think they’ve done such an admirable job on the task they were given such a short time to do,” he said.
Thomas Bane, regional representative for the West Virginia Education Association, said the Preston board had his group’s complete support if it chose to follow its own course. He referred to rumors that the state would yank funding from any county that disobeyed.
“To play this strong-arm game is nothing short of distasteful by the State Board of Education,” Bane said.