BOE votes to continue blended learning

Suzette Lowe
The Jackson County Board of Education held a special meeting on Tuesday evening, Sept. 22, to discuss the school re-entry plan. Board members social distanced while utilizing the stage at the Ripley High auditorium.

Several voices from both sides of the issue were heard by Jackson County Board of Education members as they considered possible changes to the current school re-entry plan at a special meeting on Sept. 22.

Many educators and parents expressed concern regarding the inability to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing if students return for five-day instruction. Opposing viewpoints expressed apprehension regarding students not receiving a full education without being in the classroom. Issues with technology also caused frustration.

Adena Barnette, Ripley High School teacher and president of the Jackson County Education Association, urged the board to continue with the blended education plan. Locally known as the 2-1-2 model, students, based on their last name, attend two days a week with the rest of the week being remote learning.

“There is no time between classes at the high school to clean our rooms thoroughly,” she said. “Many of our union members want to see us go green on the metric map for a week before considering five-day in-person instruction.”

For parent Brianna Goodson, concerns for students falling behind and parents not having the ability to assist or teach their children are paramount.

Goodson, who said she was asked to be the voice for several parents, stated, “Educators should be able to adapt to five days. Other counties are open without issue and we shouldn’t let fear control our children’s education.”

Prioritizing what students need is a positive outcome of the 2-1-2 plan according to Ripley High teacher Emily Okes.

“We can meet standards but we have to be flexible,” she said. “We will focus and prioritize what our students need. Stability is what these students need and following this plan for a while longer will ensure that. With smaller groups, we are able to get to know our students better as well.”

Roane Jackson Technical Center is an issue that instructor Melissa Wilkinson addressed.

“We teach life skills,” she said. “With this 2-1-2 plan, we will potentially only see Jackson County students 36 days this semester. Roane County students are coming four days a week. Hands-on instruction is vital to our students. We need them back in the classroom.”

Board members were divided in their opinions as well, but all did agree on one point.

“On the metric map, we’re not gold because of the students,” Ben Mize said.

Board President, Bobbi Ferrell, who ultimately made the motion to continue with the blended 2-1-2 model, agreed.

“The maps are just targeting schools and students,” she said. “It’s not affecting the community. Everything is open and our habits don’t seem to be changing. Our schools are paying the price. But I can’t gamble with the safety of our children. My worst nightmare is our county going red on the map and we can’t be in school at all.”

With a 3-2 vote, board members voted to extend the blended model until “the board determines trends are safe to shift to five-day week in-person” instruction. Members Ferrell, Jim Frazier, and Dan Barnette voted in favor, with Mize and Steve Chancey voting against.

After the meeting, parents and teachers who lobbied for a return to five-day were not pleased with the vote.

“The education triangle of trust is broken tonight,” Joe Shockey said. “Children are not at risk being in school. Parents need school options now with vouchers or educational credits. Public education will not be the same after tonight.”

During public comments, Gilmore Elementary teacher Gala Voiers said the regression of her students is evident. Her thoughts after the meeting ventured to the board perhaps considering a different plan for elementary and secondary students.

“Maybe we need to look at a plan to allow our younger students to attend five days,” she said. “We have more of an ability to social distance and the need for them to be in school is vital. Early intervention is backed by all research. Being in two groups, I only see my students eight days a month.”

For those in favor of the plan adopted, relief was expressed.

“We can’t predict the future,” Ripley Elementary teacher Dr. Leslie Haynes said. “We have to deal with them now and that means considering the safety of our students and staff above everything.”

In other business, board members:

• Approved revisions to Virtual School Policy 2370.01 to include “Jackson County Schools will pilot a Distanced Family Engagement program, within WVDE guidelines, through our established Collaborative Community Partners, for up to 40 pre-school students.”

• Approved payment of bills from the general accounts fund in the amount of $723,591.64.

• Learned that virtual school enrollment stands at 786. The number of students who have opted to return to in-school attendance is 351. Students have until Sept. 30 to make that change.

• Learned that the Jackson County Health Department has identified two out-of-county employers and one in-county employer as the source of the current COVID-19 spread.

The next regular meeting of the board will be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the administration building.