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Gov. Jim Justice

CHARLES TOWN – Online instruction isn’t working for school-age students, and classrooms are safe for students and teachers from the coronavirus, West Virginia’s governor said recently.

“We have got to get our kids back in school,” Gov. Jim Justice declared. “Our schools are safe when guidelines are followed.”

Justice offered that assessment while outlining his plans last week to get most students—though not all—back into their classrooms for the second half of the school year.

The governor’s newest plans reflect a major change in 10 months of assumptions since the pandemic began that dictated when schools have been shuttered for students to receive only online instruction. For example, the spread of the coronavirus this year has proven negligible in schools, he said.

The transmission rate of COVID-19 among students was 0.02 percent since the pandemic started, and it has been 0.3 percent among adult school staff, he said.

Justice’s assessment also acknowledged the failure of online learning during the outbreak for many students. One-third of West Virginia’s students have received a failing grade in at least one “core” subject this past semester, he said.

“We’ve learned that when we switched learning modes, the outcome and switch to virtual learning — we’ve tried, we’ve tried really, really hard — but we all know across the board that we’re failing in that,” Justice said. “We’re absolutely failing.”

State Superintendent Clayton Burch backed-up the governor’s judgment that online learning fell far too short for too many students at the grade school and secondary levels. “We simply have to get our students back in school, in-person,” he said.

Last month Jefferson County Schools officials reported that 17 percent of students in the school system in grades 3 through 12 had at least one failing grade during the first nine weeks of the school year. Of those students, 28 percent of those taking virtual-only instruction had at least one failing grade. Only 8 percent of in-class students had one or more failing grades.

“The problem we are seeing is the rates or numbers we are looking at are about one and a quarter times higher than we would traditionally see in a normal year,” offered Shawn Dilly, Jefferson’s deputy superintendent for instruction.

“One of the things we have been doing is looking at one of the primary challenges facing not only our county but all of the counties across the nation, and that is the alarming number of students earning a failing grade in the first nine weeks,” he added.

Meanwhile, Justice’s order does not direct all students to return to their classrooms. It applies only to those who received classroom instruction during the first semester that started in September, about 5,400 students in Jefferson County.

The parents or guardians of about 3,500 students—representing about 40 percent of the school system’s enrollment—chose online instruction for their children for the first semester.

Dilly said last month that 658 families had requested to transfer their children from online to classroom learning and that 477 of those requests could be met. He said 109 families with children enrolled in classroom instruction had asked to have their children change to virtual learning and that 94 of those requests could be met.

Earlier, the county’s superintendent, Bondy Shay Gibson, said the number of virtual-learning students who could be allowed to transition back into the classroom would depend on physical distancing and other safety requirements the school system would have to continue to follow.

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