CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County classrooms didn’t open for classroom instruction on Tuesday as state officials had ordered.

The Jefferson County Board of Education’s decision last week to delay the reopening of schools for in-person learning during the pandemic until March 1 has sparked a vigorous debate among parents on both sides.

Meanwhile, this week state school officials began evaluating what they might do, if anything, to school districts such as Jefferson’s that are delaying the directive to start their buses rolling again.

Citing health and academic performance data, state school officials say classrooms are safe to reopen now to curb the isolating online-only learning that has caused a record number of students posting failing grades.

“Too many of our children are falling further behind with each day they are not in school,” said West Virginia Board of Education Vice President Tom Campbell.

One-third of Jefferson County students taking virtual-only instruction had at least one failing grade during the first grading period. With the second semester starting this week, education officials have talked about any fast remedy to the problem of insufficient learning.

Following recommendations from teachers’ unions, county school officials have decided to wait to reopen classrooms until local teachers and school employees receive their second vaccination booster shots for the strongest known immunity available.

The Jefferson County Board of Education scheduled a special “emergency” meeting Wednesday morning, after the Spirit’s deadline, to address the school system’s reopening plans.

What’s been overlooked in the debate over the state’s back-to-the-classroom order are the families that selected all-virtual instruction for their children last August, when many ramifications about their decisions during the pandemic were unknown.

State Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), who serves as chairman of the state Senates Education Committee, said keeping students and teachers safe has to be a priority. But the long-term academic harm for many students who will continue full-time online instruction until the end of the school year could be serious and long-lasting.

“These kids are being left behind, further and further behind,” she acknowledged. “The lack of education is going to affect them for years.”

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. School officials 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.

That would leave roughly 3,000 families with children who will continue to be enrolled in full-time online learning for the rest of the year.

Rucker said another concern is a significant drop-off in West Virginia students applying for state-funded college scholarships based on academic achievement. “Those are kids who might not be applying to college,” she said. “And they’re not applying because their grades have slipped during the remote [learning] experience.”

Schools also are doing significantly less testing to gauge the level of students’ academic learning, she said.

Rucker said she’s sympathetic to parents and school officials coping with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic is presenting. “It’s not like you can wave a magic wand and all of a sudden fix every single situation,” she said of the imperfect options parents and school officials face from the pandemic’s varied challenges.

Some school districts in West Virginia are mobilizing extra measures to help students academically who will be staying with full-time remote instruction through the end of the school year. For example, a few districts are offering extra tutoring help, she said.

Jefferson school officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to whether extra assistance was being provided or planned for full-time online students.

But like others, from parents to teachers to school administrators, Rucker said she wants all children to return to classrooms as soon as possible. “Kids are falling behind,” she said. “We can’t keep letting them get further and further and further behind. And it really worries me what’s going to happen next year, the year after that.”

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