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LOGAN — In a 3-2 vote during a special meeting Thursday evening, the Logan County Board of Education decided to transition back to in-person classroom instruction under their two-day “blended” model beginning Tuesday, Jan. 19.

The model is the same one that was originally approved by board members in July and used when schools in Logan County first transitioned back to in-person instruction Sept. 28. Under this plan, students will attend school on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday depending on what letter of the alphabet their last name falls under; all students in the county will learn on a fully remote basis on Wednesdays.

The decision also comes just one day after the West Virginia State Board of Education adopted new parameters Wednesday regarding in-person instruction that narrow the options available to local county school boards. The parameters are consistent with plans announced by Gov. Jim Justice on Dec. 30.

Under the state board’s new guidelines, students in grades pre-K-8 will return to in-person instruction Jan. 19, regardless of their respective county’s color on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) daily county alert system map. Local county school boards do not have the option of implementing full countywide remote learning, but individual classrooms or schools can be closed if a specific health need is identified.

High school students will attend in person unless their county is red on the DHHR map.

The new parameters also encourage counties to resume four- to five-day, in-person instruction, but at least two days is mandated. Parents also still have the ability of choosing a virtual learning option for their child or children.

Prior to LCBOE making its decision, three individuals addressed the board members during the public comments period. The first was Michael Hennessey, organizational development specialist for the South Central Region of the West Virginia Education Association, who asked board members to make the “right decision” and not feel rushed or forced to make a decision they didn’t want to.

"I'm not going to lecture," Hennessey said. "What I'd really like to do is come here and support you and give you reassurance that if you vote to do the right thing, you have support. The WVEA will support you against the state department or anybody else that wants to infringe on your right to run this community. It is your community, this is your county and you're elected to do what's best, and I know you all want that — everybody does. Nobody wants to be back five days a week more than the teachers, employees, parents and the students themselves — but not at the sacrifice of safety. It can't happen, and I know this board knows that."

Patricia Baker, a teacher at Logan High School, described a personal tragedy from her teenage years involving the deaths of some of her friends, which she said she felt responsible for at the time despite it being an accident. She attributed her feelings to the lower emotional maturity teenagers typically have, and said many students could face similar feelings or worse if important adult figures in their lives were to succumb to COVID-19 complications.

“I’ve had students now who participated in things, ended up with COVID, and have lost their person at the house and now they feel responsible,” Baker said. “I have emails from a student, and they’re gut-wrenching — ‘My selfish decision led to the death of my grandma.’ I mean, yes, it’s hard for the kids at home. I understand they need their friends, they need social aspects, but the detriment to them from taking out one of their classmates — or the perception of it, or one of their teachers in being that’s their only role model or somebody they’re really attached to — I don’t think that that’s something they can deal with, and the constant up and down of being in quarantine, being exposed … that’s just driving them crazy. At least at home, they know they’re safe.”

Crystal Moore, a longtime educator in the Logan County School System, gave her thoughts on remote learning.

“As a teacher, I can vouch that remote is not a perfect setting,” Moore said. “It’s not. We all know that. Yes, I do have some students who are failing, but I also have students who are thriving. In a recent meeting, it was stated that one-third of students are failing a core class. My response to that is: How many students were failing a core class one year ago in a regular setting? Virtual works for those who want it to work. One thing I’ve observed is students who refuse to attend or submit work, for the most part, are the same students who historically have had attendance issues or not completed work in a normal school setting.”

Moore also took issue with the theory that younger students are less susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

“The comment is that it’s less likely for younger students to get COVID, and I disagree with that. I disagree,” Moore said. “How many students in this county under the age of 16 have had COVID? I know students who have had it, some of my students who have had it. I know of elementary students who have had COVID. Their symptoms may be milder, but what of the siblings, parents and grandparents who they transmit it to? We are not just sending students into the building. What about the staff? None of us fall into a category that are less likely to get COVID.”

Following public comments, LCBOE President Jeremy Farley read the entire motion made by the WVBOE aloud to the other board members. The decision to operate under the two-day “blended” model was approved in a 3-2 vote that saw Farley and board members Barry Mullins and Harold McMillen voting in favor and Debbie Mendez and LCBOE Vice President Dr. Pat Joe White voting against.

Mendez, a registered nurse, explained that she voted against the measure because she said she felt it was not the right time for students to go back into the classroom.

“It’s been my personal opinion all along that we should not be doing this,” Mendez said. “I think — my personal opinion is — that we should be vaccinated more. Two weeks is not going to make or break us to go virtually. There’s people with, maybe, more insight than mine, and I would love to know statistics and what’s our plan B if this doesn’t work. I mean, there’s a lot of ifs, and you’ve also said that (the state) would reconsider. We’ve done all that. We’ve gone through all of this. What would it hurt to wait until more people are vaccinated? It wasn’t going to make or break us if we wait two weeks, three weeks — even a month is not going to put them back any more than they’re already back. I honestly, with my heart and soul, could not vote for this. I’m sorry.”

Farley said he would have preferred to wait until more employees were vaccinated, but both he and Mullins noted that the board has to follow the directives set at the state level. Both also said they feel the two-day model is the safest one possible with the options they were given.

“I think a lot of people don’t know how we have to follow these executive orders,” Mullins said. “We have to follow them. That’s one of these things people don’t understand. Sometimes we may not want to do it, but we have to.”

“The state is given the constitutional power to make decisions on education and they delegate authority to us for specific things, which is why one of the repercussions for counties — and I’m not saying in this specific instance — but a county who fails to meet high standards for education can be taken over by the state,” Farley said. “They can declare that a county is not meeting those standards and can come in and put things in place to try to bring those standards back up, which is just one example that the state does have the final authority … you all know they send us mandates all the time and we’re expected to comply.”

According to Superintendent Patricia Lucas, 186 employees of Logan County Schools had received the first dose of vaccine as of Thursday’s meeting, with approximately 173 more scheduled for the following day on Friday, Jan. 15. She noted that those numbers account for those who have been vaccinated under the West Virginia Department of Education’s directive, adding that some employees have received vaccinations elsewhere.

Lucas also noted that some employees have chosen not to be vaccinated yet.

HD Media news reporter Dylan Vidovich can be contacted via email at dvidovich@HDMediaLLC.com.