FAYETTEVILLE — A few days ahead of a decision on a possible full return to the classrooms, local speakers shared some of their thoughts on the matter Tuesday with the Fayette County Board of Education.
Earlier this fall, the board voted to return to schools in a blended fashion until Oct. 30, with plans to re-assess at that point and figure out the best path for the future as the world continues to grapple with Covid-19. The blended model features a smaller number of students at schools on a daily basis, with them receiving instruction remotely on the days they aren't in school.
The board will conduct a special meeting for a work session tonight to further explore updating the re-entry plan.
Among the speakers at Tuesday's board meeting was Melanie Swisher, who read a letter on behalf of the New River Intermediate faculty senate for staff and service personnel.
Many staff have "serious concerns" about the re-entry plan if students return to classrooms five days a week for instruction, Swisher said.
"First and foremost, safety should be the top priority of everyone involved," she said. "The blended model of instruction, although a compromise, does allow better social distancing due to smaller class sizes.
"Students are unique in how they learn and retain content. Supplementing classroom teaching with online learning allows students to learn at their own pace."
Smaller class size also leads to safer travel in hallways and outside for recess, she said, and it makes the bus situation safer. "With the blended model, we are closer to following the CDC guidelines."
Blended learning also allows staff to use Wednesdays to provide technical assistance to parents, communicate with families and trouble-shoot issues, she noted. That is "in addition to the countless hours most of us are providing by choice to our students and families outside our workday hours."
"Will our schools ever be the same again?," Swisher asked. "We certainly hope so. But to think about bringing the whole school back together again is unthinkable."
She said classrooms have currently been emptied of all unnecessary seats and furniture, but a return to regular school will mean that furniture must come back in and social distancing will be "impossible."
Swisher also mentioned a lack of available substitute teachers as being an impediment if a return to five-day instruction occurs.
"We are asking that you vote to keep us all safe. ... We aren't fighting for what is easier for us; we want what is safer for all - students, teachers and families alike. Please keep our current blended model in place at least through this semester and let's re-assess then."
Amanda Erickson, also from the NRI faculty senate, walked board members and Superintendent Gary Hough through a timeline of a typical school day via different learning delivery scenarios for her classes.
Tega Toney, AFT-Fayette president and vice-president of AFT-West Virginia, reminded the board of an earlier push poll involving AFT-Fayette members in which 86 percent "want blended (learning) to the end of the first semester" before a re-assessment occurs. She mentioned concerns in continuing overall rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths, and noted schools in West Virginia and elsewhere being forced to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks.
"Just this morning, the headline story on The Register-Herald's front page was titled, 'Record hospitalizations, Covid cases spike across country and West Virginia,'" said Toney. "Blended gives us an opportunity to social distance, to clean more thoroughly, to limit exposure and to not overwhelm the resources of our schools and our school systems.
"No one can question the dedication that teachers and service personnel of Fayette County have for our kids right now. They are completely flipping the way that they've always done their job, and they're doing the job of two people, if not more. They are dedicating all hours of the night and day to our kids. Their plea is this, please do not put them in a position where they have to shoulder more anxiety, stress and fear than they are already shouldering."
In the name of safety, Toney said the local organization asks that the school system stay blended until the end of the first semester before re-evaluating the situation.
Some speakers on the evening said the blended model isn't providing a proper education for students.
The current schedule limiting in-person instruction to two days a week is "a disservice," said parent J.T. Schwarz. Of his two Oak Hill-area children, he said, "Neither feel like they are being educated like they should."
"The blended schedule is not our county's best effort to educate our children," he later added. "Is this board willing to settle for mediocre?"
If the decision is to continue with the blended model, "I implore you to mandate teachers to use the technology consistently across all classes," Schwarz said.
Parent Jeanine Robinson said remote learning "is not for my child." She said overall she feels children are "falling further and further behind."
In asking for a return to four or five days a week of in-person instruction, Robinson said, "My child needs a full-time education and full-time educators."
Local grandmother Debra Wallace said learning via technology is "not running as smoothly as it should be. ... I do think the children should be back in school."
Nicole McCormick, a music teacher at Meadow Bridge Elementary School, said the majority of the MBES faculty senate believes that keeping the blended schedule is the best option.
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