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West Virginia Needs a Smart Back-to-School Plan

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

When Thomas Paine penned these words, America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War.

Nearly 250 years later, we are fighting another enemy, an invisible one that threatens our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

Currently, we are struggling to implement an education plan with suggestions ranging from the ideal to the actual.

The data and mitigations regarding what is the best tack for returning to in-school learning is, at best, obscure, conflicting, and confusing.

The resounding message is that students need to be in school.

We can all agree to that under normal circumstances; however, COVID has introduced unprecedented challenges to our school systems.

While we continue to advocate for the return of in-school instruction, concerns arise questioning whether the abrupt return to school (last week was) the safest option.

Some of these questions include the following:

– Why were professional education associations (AFT, WVEA, and WV School Personnel Association) not involved in the decision-making process?

– Why is there a different start date for winter athletics, and why is the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission not the authority for this decision?

– If 40% of virtual students are currently failing, why are intervention plans not in place?

– How can we maintain social distancing in classrooms and common areas and on school buses with all students in attendance?

– Why are we ignoring research that states children and young people are more likely to bring the virus into homes, infecting entire families?

– Why are we using the Iceland model for West Virginia when the student-teacher ratio in Iceland is 6:1?

– How can we, in good conscience, require school personnel to constantly be changing their protocols?

– If we are closing in on having the entire population vaccinated by the end of March, why can’t we stay with the current model until then?

– What has happened to local-decision making that allows for those closest to the situation to provide guidance?

Are we now a “one size fits all”?

Having posed these questions, I would conclude by suggesting that the answers to these and other questions might be best resolved by bringing all vested entities to the table to develop, not an ideal plan, but an actual, workable plan to the benefit of all.

I would reiterate that students do need to be back in school for direct instruction with the stipulation that if and only if we can guarantee the safety and protection of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and service personnel.

With COVID cases in West Virginia at an all-time high, we are, indeed, experiencing “trying times,” and this may be the absolute worst time to make a sudden, and perhaps, reckless decision that could add to the anxiety, fatigue, worry, and grief that we are struggling to overcome in an effort to survive within a new normal.

Staying with the blended/remote strategy for two more months may reduce COVID incidents while the current mitigating strategies and effectiveness to date may drastically decrease if the five-day, in-school model is implemented too quickly.

Any good coach knows that changing plans in the middle of the game can be disastrous. Why not resolve to stay the course, follow the current game plan while designing a better model, and pray for better, COVID-free times?

David Perry is a 35-year educator, former 16-year member of the West Virginia Legislature and a past president and member of the West Virginia State Board of Education.

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