As coronavirus cases rise in West Virginia and across many states, parents are grappling with whether schools will be safe spaces for children and teachers this coming year.
Federally, there is no official guidance about how to open schools safely. But at the end of June, the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a recommendation that for kids, school should be in-person in the fall.
The recommendation asserts that school is not just about education. It’s also the place kids get healthy meals and learn to socialize and have access to school-based health centers.
“The mental health ramifications, the developmental impacts of not having that instructional learning and social interaction can really be very risky to children,” said Dr. Lisa Costello, president of the West Virginia chapter of the AAP.
She said recent research suggests that for whatever reason, young kids may not get or transmit the disease as easily as adults. And when they do get it, the disease is less severe than in older people.
“We also have found, very interestingly, that children do not seem to spread the virus as much as they do when it comes to other diseases,” she said. “Thus far we know that children and adolescents, they don't seem to be transmitting this virus as much as say, influenza.”
She said that for kids themselves, the benefits of having in-person school seem to outweigh the risks. Of course, schools don’t exist in an underage vacuum. There are teachers and bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers – many of whom are at high risk for getting and transmitting the disease.
“If it’s not safe for students, it’s not safe for teachers and staff and we have to consider whether we do it all,” said Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools.
Burch said officials pushed the student school start date to Sept. 8 and the teacher start date to Aug. 24 to give the Board of Education and districts time to come up with a plan. They’re still working on it.
“These reentries have to be customized to the county,” he said. “Each one of our counties have very, very different needs....we have many, many children who need school for a lot of reasons and our schools realize that and at the same time we have to put options in place for families that don’t feel safe and we have to put protocols in place that if we open these buildings it is the safe as possible and one size doesn’t fit all.”
The Board of Education has tried to address the contingencies by putting together a safety toolkit that all counties have to follow to reopen.
But beyond that, one of the biggest challenges facing schools in West Virginia is that the state is far from having comprehensive broadband. And, even if broadband was available in every county, not every family can afford internet services.
“In 25 years of public education, I've always believed that public education is a great equalizer,” Bruch said. “I have always truly believed that public education will equalize all and everybody has an opportunity...until March 13th. And when we saw the inequity, we knew there was some, we just didn't know how wide the gap was when it comes to broadband.”
When Gov. Jim Justice closed schools due to the coronavirus on March 13, some kids were sent home with paper packets. Some had online options. By the end of the year, teachers reported that a lot of kids just stopped logging in or turning in the work.
Several initiatives are being considered to improve internet equity.
"We've been working with the West Virginia Department of Education on a deal with Sprint, that we are hopeful will come to fruition, which would allow a full service unlimited data plan in full for the entire school year for any family that is within their coverage area, provided we can purchase the appropriate hotspots for them,” said Bondy Shay Gibson, the superintendent for Jefferson County. “That is a technical problem that we are working through but again we are actively pursuing every possible means for getting WiFi access inside the home to families.”
Burch said the proposals he’s seen are cost-effective. And they could help kids access the Internet who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
“As a matter of fact, we're hearing costs as low as potentially $10 a month for unlimited data,” Burch said. “That would be a game changer trying to get more and more children access.”
If students are able to access the Internet, they could then enroll in the West Virginia Virtual School — an online education program available in all 55 counties for all middle and high school students.
Burch said they’ve seen a huge uptick in students enrolling in the virtual school and are anticipating a shortage of virtual teachers.
He said the state board is encouraging employers to be as flexible as possible with their teachers and allow them to move to teaching a virtual classroom if they feel more comfortable with that.
But even if the broadband issue was fixed, kids often don’t have the skills required to stay accountable for lessons and homework on their own… and there are lots of students who just need in person school, said Costello. Kids with individualized educational programs, who get therapy at school, who are fed, or for whom school is a safe space. Teachers are mandatory reporters for abuse and neglect cases and since school has been out, referrals for abuse and neglect have been dropped. Experts don’t think it’s because magically there is less abuse and neglect, but rather that kids are likely stuck home with their abusers and no one is witnessing it.
On the federal level, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have been pushing for five day a week in-person reopening this fall. This has been met with a lot of criticism from across the aisle — including Justice.
“I’m not going to be pressured by anyone — including our president, to open schools if I don’t feel like it’s safe,” Justice said at a press conference Monday.
A couple days ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association clarifying and updating its late June recommendation.
“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff” they wrote. “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.