Jackson County parents share their health and safety concerns for the school year
Ronald Greer has two children in Jackson County schools. Greer, a physician in Ravenswood, said his family made the decision to send the kids back to school last year after his 11-year-old started showing signs of depression.
They thought about keeping their kids at home, but the social isolation had taken a toll.
Greer's family isn't alone. One-third of parents across the U.S. say their child's mental or emotional health has gotten worse since the COVID pandemic began, according to a study conducted by Jed Foundation.
Even though there are risks, Greer said, his two children still attend school in person. One's old enough and has been vaccinated, the other is patiently waiting to turn 12.
He said he isn't worried about his children, he's worried about schools not taking all recommended CDC precautions.
Greer said he spoke at several Board of Education meetings last year urging Jackson County to create a specific plan to fight COVID-19.
Instead, Jackson County uses the state's COVID recovery and guidance guide, Superintendent Blaine Hess said. The nine-page booklet says that schools may close if the daily amount of absences of those out with COVID is double the normal rate and if schools can't maintain a safe environment with too many employees out.
He said the board's decision last week to reinstate the mask requirement is a step in the right direction but more can be done, like upgrading the ventilation system and enforcing social distancing.
"It's frustrating," Greer said. "I hope this is a start."
There haven't been any new ventilation systems installed in the schools since the COVID pandemic began, Hess said. New HVAC units will be installed at Cottageville Elementary School and Ripley Middle School next summer. Additional settings have been added to some units to improve ventilation, Hess said.
Greer is still urging Jackson County to create a COVID mitigation plan that the public can access.
He isn't the only parent who has concerns.
Jessica Wooten, of Ravenswood, has three children. Her youngest, Jack, has down syndrome and is immunocompromised.
Before the mask mandate was in effect, she said her two daughters were of the few people who wore masks while in school. They did it to protect their brother.
The Ravenswood mom said she feels better with the mask policy in place, but she hopes schools are taking additional precautions, like distancing.
"I want my kids to go to school, but I want them to be healthy while they're there," Wooten said. "I'm just concerned we're not doing all we can to prioritize our kids' health in the schools this year."
This time last year, Wooten kept her children home from school in order to protect Jack. She was disappointed with the county's virtual school option and ended up creating a hybrid learning environment involving the online program and homeschooling materials.
She felt like her kids would fall behind if the online school wasn't supplemented. That's why her children went back in person halfway through last school year and are in person now.
"We didn't want them to be so far behind their peers because the virtual school was so inadequate," Wooten said.
What are my education options?
Dwayne Merritt, the county's attendance director, said parents have a few options if they don't want their children learning in person.
To enroll a student into homeschooling, a parent or guardian must fill out a one-page document and provide proof of at least a high school diploma.
So far, the county has seen an increase of 34 students in homeschooling this year, Merritt said.
Jackson County is not offering online learning for elementary students. Middle and high schoolers must pass certain criteria, like having a health condition, in order to switch to online learning.
Merritt said a family may move to another county or request to have their child take online courses through another school.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.