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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits with Jefferson County Schools employees.

BARDANE — Four weeks after schools reopened during the ongoing pandemic, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a low-key visit to Jefferson County to hear how frontline teachers and staff were coping.

Gathering with a varied group of 11 school staff members, DeVos heard anecdotes of stresses, challenges, adjustments and rapid reinventions. She heard a lot about teamwork, collaboration, communication, and technology and online learning.

“I really don’t feel like I work for a school system anymore,” offered Jefferson High School band director J.P. Lynch. “I feel like I work for NASA.”

“Here’s the issue. There’s the problem. Work the problem,” Lynch said of a new can-do, problem-solving environment for school staff operating amid the pandemic.

DeVos said she came to Jefferson County to listen and learn as part of several tours of school districts across the country. “We have a very vast geographically and culturally and socially unique country,” she explained after the informal forum. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the solution for every child.”

For the most part, DeVos heard descriptions of a school district, brimming with COVID-19 safety supplies, that was settling down for a new school year after an arduous and sometimes rocky road to mobilize over the spring and summer. She heard several comments about children glad to return to class with their friends.

“They love team meetings because they want to socialize,” said Kevin Holmes, a Shepherdstown Middle School teacher. “They want to get out. They want to come back to school.”

Holmes, who teaches about 130 children online at home and about 40 others simultaneously in the classroom, said several of his young charges look forward to an attentive morning hello or quick hug before starting their day at their desks. “Some of those kids need that because they don’t get it at home,” he said. “They need to be in class.”

“They’re just happy to be here,” added Flo Best, head cook at Page Jackson Elementary School, of the young students she spends her days serving and surrounded with. Best told how some students have delighted in jokingly tut-tutting cafeteria workers over make-believe missteps of social distancing. “I just know they feel safe.”

Gibson has publicly commended food service workers doing extra work in preparing meals for both in-school students—who eat their lunches in classrooms—as well as many homebound students.

Holmes said he has health conditions that would put him at extra risk if he were to contract the coronavirus. His doctor has urged him to steer clear from the classroom until the pandemic fades away, he said, but he’s not ready to follow those doctor’s recommendations.

“I’m willing to put in on the line” for his students, Holmes said, prompting a round of applause from his colleagues in the room.

West Virginia Superintendent Clayton Burch and Jefferson County Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson also participated and offered some remarks during the masks-on meeting with DeVos at the school system’s bus depot in Bardane.

The gathering with DeVos occurred just three days after Gibson described many school staffers on the brink of breaking from the combined pressures of rushed training, safety protocols and additional duties associated with reopening the school system during the pandemic.

“We’re literally taking people off the ledge because they are so overwhelmed, and they’re frustrated,” she said.

Gibson offered the assessment while recommending that the Jefferson County school board give a one-time $500 bonus to every teacher and support staff member. Her recommendation came after she helped orchestrate $310,000 in pay raises to school administrators and central office managers—pay raises that weren’t publicly discussed before they were adopted and have angered many front-line teachers.

Before she described stressed and heavily worked staff, Gibson also admitted to some rough patches encountered during the first week of schools. One included incomplete classroom schedules for high school students due to a state software program that malfunctioned before classes were due to start. The software issue caused counselors to build schedules by reverting to a pen and paper process, she said.

Vince Costello, a father of a Washington High School sophomore who did not attend the meeting with DeVos, told the Spirit that some students at the school still had incomplete class schedules last week.

Costello has been among some parents who have been outspokenly critical of Gibson’s leadership—not the efforts of teachers and service staff—in preparing the school system’s reopening.

“The ending of the 2019-2020 school year was understandably frustrating. We are in the middle of a pandemic that is far from over,” Costello wrote the superintendent on Sept. 25. “With that being said, you had from March until now to come up with a plan for school. You have done a terrible job.”

“I have listened to the board meetings via ZOOM where you give updates to the board on the current situation in the school,” Costello continued. “From my experience with my daughter's school, I do not believe that you have been very honest with the board members.

“The virtual students still do not have full schedules. The in person students had to watch classes get cut because there is not enough staff. Then there are the blended classes (which you stated was not going to happen). It is a cluster and my daughter and many other children are getting short changed.”

In his introductory remarks during the meeting with DeVos, Burch, while accepting that some online learning fits some circumstances of some students, Burch acknowledged his view that most students—including his own four at home—learn and develop best with their peers in a classroom setting.

“I’ll continue to be critical of remote learning,” Burch said. “It’s not how we all learn. … We’ve got to do a better job for those who need remote learning.”

Madison “Madi” Smith, a fourth-grader at South Jefferson Elementary School who participated in the meeting, and who admits she finds technology more of a chore than a charm, wholeheartedly agreed with Burch.

“I did not like virtual at all,” she said of her attempt at push-button screen learning. “It was very, very hard. … I like interaction.”

Nevertheless, adopting virtual learning platforms and the teaching changes and challenges they bring, was a recurring theme during the discussion. DeVos endorsed the flexible, learn-at-your-own schedule and pace aspect of online learning as a comfortable fit for some children.

“This pandemic has revealed the benefits that technology can bring in new and unique ways,” she further added. “And I think a lot of teachers and education leaders are realizing and acknowledging that technology can be used effectively in ways … that heretofore had not been considered.”  

Before sitting down with teachers, service staff and administrators, DeVos visited a full science class via Zoom at Charles Town Middle School. The students sat dutifully and politely at their desks before waving good-bye in unison at the end.

During her meeting with school employees, DeVos asked how much remedial learning students needed after the school system abruptly closed its buildings and changed to at-home virtual learning for all students during the pandemic shutdown last spring. The U.S. secretary was told those academic assessments could begin as early as this week.

Kristi Sanders, an instructional coach for teachers, said classroom teaching is gearing up after two weeks of gradually orienting students back into their new learning settings.

Some teachers and school staff at the meeting said they appreciated the efforts taken by their colleagues to plan and communicate with each other before and during the building reopening steps.

One of the three parents who attended the meeting also praised the school system’s planning and communication with parents in preparing to reopen the schools. “The plan that they put out was very descriptive on how it was going to work,” offered Madi’s mother, Kelly Smith.

Perhaps the highest praise and endorsement came from Brogan Dozier, a 17-year-old Washington High senior who attended the discussion with DeVos. Brogan said school officials over the summer sent several surveys to find out what parents thought was important to reopen the schools safely. She said Lynch, the band leader for Jefferson High, called her a few times to ask how to make her feel safe to continue participating as a color guard member.

“The plans were laid out, and once we knew exactly what was going down, it was amazing,” Brogan said.

Much of the discussion highlighted Jefferson Virtual Academy, the learning platform developed by the county school system that allows online students to pipe live into classrooms with their peers. Like other instructional platforms, the system also offers offline, or “asynchronous” learning, of lessons and exercises.

“When you do put technology in a class, it is supposed to enhance,” said Jennifer Rowan, the director of technology who helped develop the virtual system. “We want to build new skills in order [to foster] real-world learning.”

Rowan acknowledged that technical issues with the Virtual Academy have caused delays and disruptions since the system was introduced quickly and early as classrooms were closing during the outbreak in March. “We definitely have some issues, but every day we’re trying to work through it and get better,” she said.

A certified teacher herself, Rowan said teachers were pressed into crash learning the online instructional system. But the teachers, many of whom are leading online instruction for the first time in their careers, are steadily becoming more comfortable with using the technology, she said.

“We’ve seen that folks are capable of a lot more than they ever thought themselves capable of,” she added.

Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Shawn Dilly added his own future-gazing viewpoint. “We decided early on that the power in our Virtual Academy is our teachers and that connection they make to our students.”

“We know this isn’t going to go away,” he continued. “We know that this is part of a modern school system as we go forward, so we want to make sure that we are building what is best for our kids.”

To help teachers with their transition into cyber-instruction, the school system provided laptop computers for them all. The school system purchased 4,169 Chromebooks and converted 2,250 computers into similar laptops.

Hans Fogle, the public information officer for Jefferson’s schools, has not responded to questions asking what the school system spent on the computers.

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