Burch says school decision came after talks from local education leaders

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch says the decision to bring all elementary and middle schools back to the physical classroom in January came with plenty of discussion with local leaders.

Burch, appearing on Thursday’s MetroNews ‘Talkline,’ said all 55 county superintendents wrote a joint letter to him in recent days stating support from counselors and teachers to reopen for in-person learning.

Clayton Burch

Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday that the state’s elementary and middle schools would return to five-day-a-week in-person instruction on Jan. 19 regardless of what the COVID-19 map says about the spread of the virus in their counties.

Burch said in that letter that many local school leaders questioned the map matching with COVID-19 data inside schools.

“People are beginning to question if remote learning is not working, ‘If we’ve got so many children in crisis and we don’t have the data to show spread in the schools, why are we following the map,’ he said.

Burch, Justice and state Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh cited Wednesday studies that show the transmission of COVID-19 is very low among younger children.

Burch said on ‘Talkline’ that high schools would also reopen to in-person instruction on Jan. 19 unless the county in which the school is located is ‘red’ on the map. The state Department of Education said Justice’s announcement means the Saturday school alert map would no longer be used.

Burch added that local education leaders will still have decision making powers on shutting down individual schools.

“We may not see the data to support the entire county being shutdown but we need the local health departments and the local superintendents to pinpoint where there may be an outbreak potentially a classroom shutting down. In the worst-case scenario, an individual school shutting down,” he said.

“They also have to make the real tough decisions of when to bring those high schools back safely.”

Burch said the results of the virtual learning for students across the state have not been up to par, resulting in a jump of the student failure rate. He reported that 35-38{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of students have a ‘D’ or ‘F’ in a core class this school year, compared to a 5-8{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} mark last year at this time.

Around 50,000 students are learning virtually in the state, compared to a system that held 1,700 last year.

“Where it has been successful is when it is a local teacher teaching their children,” Burch said. “The children we are seeing on these platforms do not have live instructors, don’t have daily contact with a teacher, those are rough. It takes a student who is really motivated to do that.”

Burch said for safety that COVID-19 vaccinations would be made available to teachers and service personnel over the age of 50 beginning next week. Along with the vaccine being given out, he said local leaders need to be on the ball to prevent outbreaks.

“We are asking our superintendents and our principals to step up. We have got to make sure those six mitigation strategies are followed to the letter. Because when they are, it is very safe. We have seen outbreaks when they are not followed,” Burch said.

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