CHARLES TOWN – Under a cautionary COVID-19 yellow flashing light, school buses began rolling this week to carry many, though not all, of Jefferson County’s students to their first day of class for the new school year.
Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said last Friday that the county’s public schools were ready to reopen safely and orderly after months of arduous preparations. But the reopening takes place amid unprecedented challenges of complexity, uncertainty and continual change during the pandemic.
So don’t expect perfection from this week’s reopening for 17 schools and about 700 teachers and 8,900 students, Gibson added.
“We’re going to need some grace and some patience from folks,” she offered. “There are still going to be things that we cannot anticipate and aren’t prepared for.”
“That doesn’t mean that anyone isn’t doing their jobs or isn’t competent or isn’t prepared,” she continued. “It simply means that it is an incredibly difficult situation that no one in public education has faced before.
“So I would ask that people have some patience and some kindness and some grace, and we’ll get through it better for that.”
Under an order by Gov. Jim Justice, schools were closed statewide on March 16 due to the coronavirus outbreak, and they never reopened. Schools, students, teachers and parents were thrown into virtual learning with less than a week of preparation, a status that lasted through the end of the school year.
During a special school board meeting Friday, Gibson said the county school system is now embarking on a difficult challenge to reopen with some students attending in person or some participating online. Most school systems across the country have avoided, or have tried and abandoned, operating with both classroom and virtual instruction running together, she said.
“It’s too complicated,” she said. “They gave up and threw their hands up and went full virtual because it’s creating two entirely separate school systems with the same resources that you had to run one.”
Parents of about 60 percent of the school system’s students have chosen to send their children back to classes to start the year. The remaining parents opted to have their children participate through online learning — much of it piped live into the classrooms of their schoolmates.
To transition children back into classroom learning and acclimate them to health-safety rules, the schools are phasing in-person attendance. One quarter of a school’s students will be called to on-site learning each day during the first two weeks of the schools’ reopening.
For students staying home at least through the school system’s first semester ending in November, six buses equipped with Wi-Fi internet connection systems are ready to roll, Gibson said. Those buses will travel to different locations to allow students without reliable internet connections to access the school system’s online.
A schedule telling where the buses will be and when will be posted on the school system’s website.
Gibson said parents should check the individual website for their child’s school for when their child should report to school. Schedules for virtual open houses to allow parents to meet their child’s teacher online also will be posted on those individual school websites, she said.
Meanwhile, as of late last week, school administrators and teachers were still dealing with a few last-minute adjustments, fixes, accommodations and workarounds, Gibson acknowledged.
Significantly, a previous shortage of teachers and substitute teachers has intensified as the coronavirus outbreak has lingered. Some cautious teachers and employees have shied away from working this fall, and school officials are still hiring classroom leaders and service workers.
Gibson said some central administration staff will fill in as substitute classroom teachers and service workers as needed. “It’s all hands on deck,” she said.
Meanwhile, some teachers with young children have balked at a requirement that all teachers report to their classrooms to give online instruction to their homebound students should school buildings be shut down if the virus outbreak worsens.
Gibson said some of those teachers communicated that they faced personal child care and work dilemmas from having to report to their classrooms with children still at home.
On Friday, as a concession, the school board approved a list of 30 teachers who will be allowed to teach online temporarily from home should school buildings be shut down during a worsening virus outbreak. Those teachers will have their performance reviewed weekly, Gibson said. They will also be subject to home visits by their supervisor to check whether they’re working during their scheduled hours.
The board also approved a formal “telework” policy outlining the requirements and obligations for those teachers. Local representatives from two teachers associations and a service personnel association helped mediate and work out the telework plan, Gibson said.
“To be absolutely clear, this is not an agreement for staff to choose telework simply as a permanent option,” she said.
“This is not an employee providing child care while they’re supposed to be working,” she added. “Importantly, you have to be accessible and productive during your scheduled work hours. … The staff who do get approved for telework need to be working and giving that their full devotion and attention and concentration while they’re on virtual.”
One bright spot amid the staffing shortage is that enough nurses have been hired to have one stationed full time at every school during the outbreak, the superintendent said.
Also on the health safety front, Gibson said a coronavirus infection testing system deployed for the schools is working well and efficiently. The system mobilizes state and local health officials if anyone tests positive for an infection, she said.
“We have a checklist for them to go through to review that person’s symptoms with them and then to send them for testing,” she explained. “So far, that system has worked flawlessly.”
Tests conducted so far on a few teachers during the past two weeks have provided results quickly, and no teacher had a positive test result, she said.
Every student, teacher and visitor to county schools during the reopening also will be checked for a possible fever by a temperature scan machine before they enter a school building.
But not every bit of technology has gone smoothly on the road to the reopening, Gibson said. One speed bump involved a class scheduling software system used by schools statewide that stopped working about a month ago.
That glitch required counselors to manually prepare 3,000 academic schedules for high school students. It slowed the process of avoiding course conflicts, Gibson said.
The glitch also complicated efforts to keep students spread for social distancing while keeping track of which of them were attending classes and completing assignments in person and online, she said.
“While we’ve created the master schedule, we still have some conflicts that we are working through,” she said.
Another road bump in the reopening: 1,200 laptop computers the school system ordered last spring still hadn’t arrived last week. Those Chromebook computers will allow students without a home computer to take advantage of online coursework and remote classroom connections.
School officials were still waiting to hear a delivery date for the laptops, Gibson said Friday. However, an earlier batch of computers had been received and distributed to students, she said.
“The things that we do have control over, the staff have gone above and beyond to make those work,” Gibson said. “We will adapt to the changing conditions as quickly and as carefully as we can.”