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The Inter-Mountain photo by Amanda Hayes
Patrick Pasterick was one of several parents who asked the Upshur County Board of Education to consider in-person instruction this week.

TENNERTON — The Upshur County Board of Education has called a special meeting for Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 6 p.m. at Buckhannon-Upshur High School for discussion and possible action on school re-entry for Jan. 19.

The agenda was announced Thursday afternoon, following up on discussion from Tuesday’s regular board of education meeting at which no decisions were made.

Meanwhile, Upshur County Schools personnel 50 and above were receiving their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine this week as the school system prepares to possibly return to four-day a week in-person instruction Jan. 19.

Dr. Jeff Harvey, director of safety and emergency preparedness, said at Tuesday’s meeting, “We will begin vaccinations in Upshur County this week and those will continue on a regular basis. In accordance with the state’s guidelines, the initial population we are targeting is 50 and above and that starts later this week.”

Harvey said that the Moderna vaccine has a 28-day window in between the first and second vaccines.

“We are trying to get that rolled out and get as many folks vaccinated as possible,” he said. “We have been assured by the state that we will be able to provide vaccines to everyone in the system that wants it.”

Harvey presented this information along with a recap of new information that had developed since Governor Jim Justice announced a return to in-person learning Jan. 19.

Upshur County’s request to be a four day a week county was approved, due to teachers providing remote instruction and the 2 p.m. dismissal time was also approved, but the school system will have to show a plan to return to full instruction by Feb. 18.

The Department of Education and DHHR have shared statistics including that 127 outbreaks in schools and 573 cases associated with those 127 outbreaks.

The cases ranged from two to 26 in these outbreaks with the median of four cases per outbreak.

Harvey also said that of the 127 outbreaks, 77 of those were student only or staff only and 50 outbreaks were a mix of students and staff.

Information was also provided on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and other entities.

“What is surprising about some of those statistics is that spread in schools does not necessarily match spread in communities,” Harvey said. “We knew that from our experience in Upshur County, but to hear those trends are consistent in other areas was also interesting for us to hear.”

Harvey said he was concerned about the rise in cases in Upshur County.

Several people spoke at the meeting.

Mary Miller, a ninth-grade science teacher at B-UHS, said she has nearly 43 years of education and returned to teaching after a year of retirement due to a shortage of science teachers.

In her year of retirement, she ended up teaching her grandchildren at home when schools went to remote learning.

“We know the virus is dangerous,” she said. “We know that remote learning is not working. In science, what we do is we ask why and then we find solutions. Most of my kids are going to pass. I teach ninth graders and I love them.”

Miller reminded those in attendance that students are learning in an unconventional way.

“They are learning perseverance, patience, trouble shooting and problem solving,” she said. “Guess what? Those are the work skills people are looking for.”

Miller asked the board of education to follow plans that Taylor and Marion County boards of education have agreed on where numbers dictate school attendance.

“If our numbers are high, our attendance needs to be low,” she said. “I will have 26 children on Jan. 19 in a 23.5 square foot room. There’s no way I can socially distance them.”

Miller also asked about the lack of substitute teachers – a problem that caused the middle school and high school to go remote before Thanksgiving.

“I will take my iPad to Ruby with me, and as long as I can, I will be teaching my kids,” she said. “I just want you to ask yourself, is this worth someone’s life?”

Parent Brittany Westfall, who spoke at the last meeting held at Union Elementary about wanting a return to in-person instruction, said she and other parents would be OK with students going four days a week and the 2 p.m. dismissal.

Chester Cutright said his family was hosting a Japanese exchange student and said all she had been able to experience was his family’s home life.

“I feel horrible for her,” he said. “I really pray that we get our kids back in school because our kids are suffering.”

Peggy Cohen, the parent of a senior and an infection specialist, said school-age children are not spreading COVID-19 in the community.

It is the 20 and 30-something population that is spreading the virus.

She also said the vaccine was not the “golden answer” but she and her coworkers followed the prevention recommendations.

“We wear our masks,” she said. “We wash our hands. We social distance when we are all in the nurses station together. That is what keeps us safe.”

Cohen pointed to the difficulties with children being home.

“I think the suicide rates among school age children is up,” she said. “You know why? Because they don’t get that support.”

“What kind of education do you think those children are getting at home? They are not. They are not learning. If you are about our children, you would want them in school and being educated.”

Several more called into the meeting and gave comments over the phone or sent letters that were read by board members.

Board vice president Katie Loudin said, “I hope the community can come together. I see and hear a lot of pain tonight and I can only speak for myself. I’m not speaking. I know you all are not sleeping. I do take the responsibilities of being up here very seriously and I hear you. I am very torn and I don’t know what the way forward is.”

Loudin asked that school personnel receive adequate personal protective equipment if they are going to be on the front lines of the virus.

“Health care workers have adequate PPE and that is something I would like to see for all of our personnel if we get back to in person instruction,” she said.

Loudin also asked that face coverings be required for all students pre-K through 12.

“My own children ages 3 and 6 can do it,” she said. “I can only speak from my experience. There was a recent outbreak at the CDC in my son’s class. Eventually, there were five people. For us to sit here and act like kids can’t spread it, I hear the data and I think kids are spreading it. I think they are tested less.”

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