State school board gives counties time to comply with directive

CHARLESTON — With some counties continuing to offer remote learning despite a mandate for in-person class work, the West Virginia Board of Education decided Wednesday to wait until next week before taking action against those counties.

“They are not going to do it that way. It’s not going to happen … I cannot accept that,” said state Board of Education President Miller Hall.

“They’re going to get it done. If they don’t, we’ll do it for them.”

The state board announced its emergency meeting Tuesday, the same day public and private schools were to reopen for in-person instruction per an executive order by Gov. Jim Justice.

Last week, the state board voted to prohibit county school boards from going to remote learning except for high schools in red counties on the Department of Health and Human Resources’ County Alert System map. County Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools must either be open four or five days each week, or they can move to hybrid-blended models that allow for schools to be open at least two days per week.

As of Wednesday, only Gilmer, Marion and Taylor counties were refusing to allow students back in school in-person due to the high infection rates and percent of positivity of COVID-19 in those counties. At the time the state board called its emergency meeting, seven counties were not in compliance.

In emergency meetings of their own over the last 24 to 48 hours, the school boards in Monongalia, Jefferson, and Berkeley counties brought their re-opening plans in compliance with the state board directive. The Harrison County Board of Education voted to comply with the state board directive starting Monday.

Clayton Burch, the state superintendent of schools, said the superintendents in Gilmer, Marion and Taylor counties agreed with the state board’s directive, but the elected county school board members in those counties disagreed.

“I’ve been in contact with all three,” Burch said. “They’re ready, it’s just that whatever obstacle the local board has decided to vote … I do believe we expected kids to be in.”

The Gilmer County Board of Education voted Jan. 11 to remain in remote learning for all schools as long as the county was orange or red on the County Alert System map. Marion County Schools are operating on a two-day blended model until further notice and will return to in-person instruction when the map shows orange, the next step down from red, for five consecutive days. Taylor County Schools remain in remote instruction, using their own color-coded system on conjunction with the County Alert System map.

State Board Member Debra Sullivan said the state board needs to invite the county board members from Gilmer, Marion, and Taylor counties to Charleston to find out exactly why they are uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning for middle schools on down.

“What is it that these three counties see in their situations that prevent them from re-opening,” asked Sullivan. “I am not in a position to know the depth of information our county boards of education … know about their own locale. The counties have been dealing with this for 10 months. Many of them are prepared for the next steps and many are not.”

Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the Department of Education, laid out the legal options the state board could take to bring the three counties in line.

“The state board is empowered to take whatever steps necessary to fulfill its obligation to achieve the constitutionally mandated goals of quality and equality,” Hutchens said. “There is a very wide latitude of action available to the state board.”

The board can bring action against a county through the courts or a parent could bring legal action against a county. The state board can also withhold state aid and funding from counties. The board could intervene and take direct control of a county school system. It could also require the county to make up days at the end of the school calendar or prohibit counties from participating in extracurricular activities.

Despite taking no action Wednesday, some state board members were adamant about taking some form of action by Tuesday, when the board meets again.

“Why can’t they be in school,” Hall asked. “If the board presidents can’t get it done, then we’re going to have to get it done. That’s not being rude, that’s being factual, because we did give a mandate that they can follow, and we gave them some flexibility and options they can use.”

“From my perspective, I am prepared to take action on the 26th if the fundamental right the constitution provides these students is not provided for,” said board member Tom Campbell. “I think they need to know … I take my responsibility, my oath to the constitution, very seriously. I take the needs of the students very seriously. I personally have not heard a justifiable reason at this point that those counties should not be open.

Also Wednesday, the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers filed for a temporary restraining order against the state board’s directive in Kanawha County Circuit Court. In the filing, the AFT asks for the state to refrain from requiring in-person school until all teachers receive both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or after Feb. 15.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)


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