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Brooke BOE reverses course after order by state board

WELLSBURG — At a special meeting Friday, the Brooke County Board of Education voted to return to a mix of in-person and remote learning next week, reversing its decision earlier this week to keep students home for remote learning for the remainder of the month.

All cited an order Wednesday by the West Virginia Board of Education that all students in grades K-8 return to some level of in-person classroom instruction and for those in grades 9-12 return unless their counties have been designated red for COVID-19 on a state map maintained by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

The board moved for students to return to the hybrid schedule it had approved before the school year began. Beginning Thursday half of each school’s enrollment will report on Thursdays and Fridays and the other half on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Wednesdays all will receive remote instruction using the internet and other materials.

Superintendent Jeffrey Crook confirmed the local board still will have the power to close a school following reports of multiple COVID-19 cases there.

The option was one of four presented by Crook and recommended by him as “the closest to where we were” before the county’s Level Red status led to its schools being closed in November.

Since then students have received remote instruction except for the holiday break.

Others involved students receiving four or five days of in-person instruction or continuing to receive remote instruction only.

The Brooke County board had unanimously supported the latter move, for the rest of January, on Monday, citing the county’s continued Red status.

Antoinette Perkins, the board’s vice president, was among members who said they were frustrated by the state board’s order.

“I’m just amazed the state has put us in this position. I’m very disappointed in them,” said Perkins, who said a COVID-19 case has affected her personally and knows others who also are dealing with the virus.

Board member Stacy Hooper said the state board has overstepped its authority, citing state code she said holds local school boards responsible for their schools and empowers them to close schools in times of emergency.

She said members of the state board of education are appointed while local board members are elected and entrusted by the public to oversee its schools.

“We are responsible, in the end, for what happens in our county,” Hooper said.

The move also has been criticized on the same grounds by leaders of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, who said they will file an injunction against the state board’s decision.

They also maintain schools shouldn’t re-open until all school personnel have had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Following Friday’s meeting, Crook said the first of two rounds of vaccine has been administered to interested staff who are 50 and older, with some under 50 also receiving it. He said the next supply of vaccine is expected after next week.

Board member Chris Byers said Gov. Jim Justice overstepped his authority when he ordered all schools closed last spring, when there were a small number of COVID-19 cases reported in Brooke County; and state officials have done so again by ordering all to reopen.

Byers called the state board’s order “way too aggressive, given the situation we’re in,” adding returning to the hybrid approach is an “imperfect solution.”

Board member Dr. Robert Marks said he and others felt the local board must follow the state’s direction but acknowledged, “We would have preferred to stay on remote a little longer.”

In defending their decision, state school officials have cited concerns about struggling students lacking the direct instruction of a classroom teacher, lack of Internet access for students in some areas and a smaller number of reported COVID-19 cases among younger children.

Noting there were 100 community members listening to the teleconferenced meeting, Board President Ted Pauls said he and others have received numerous e-mails expressing various opinions about whether students should return to school.

Pauls said those for and against are “pretty much 50-50.”

Crooks was asked if parents of children could continue to have their children receive remote instruction if they chose. He said remote instruction, provided by the school district’s staff, wouldn’t be available except for Wednesdays, but students could be enrolled in the virtual instruction computer programs the district has offered since the start of the school year.

Crook said students in the programs receive assistance from local facilitators who also ensure they are logged in.

He said the facilitators include full-time staff and others hired using funds awarded through the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act and Title I programs.

Crook said the school district also has an abundance of personal protective equipment, such as masks and desk dividers, and cleaning supplies.

“We’ll do everything we can to make things safe,” he said.

Crook added he and other school officials will continue to consult the Brooke County Health Department, which also has worked with the school district’s nursing staff to conduct contact tracing following cases involving students or staff.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)

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