A SAFE, Healthy, & Equitable Return to School

Submitted by Our Students First WV

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead.

West Virginia parents and educators from all across the state have forged a united grassroots effort with the support of community organizations to create a platform of recommendations and mandates they would like to be put into place before West Virginia students and educators enter the school buildings this year.

WV Educators and students are eager to return to our classrooms and schools. Educators miss their students, and students miss their teachers and friends. We all miss our school communities, especially as we have come together in incredible ways during the challenging months of this pandemic.

Additionally, we know that the inequities facing our most vulnerable West Virginia students and families have deepened and widened during the pandemic. There is much work to do to make up for the learning that has been lost and to address the trauma experienced by so many in our school communities.

While we are eager to return to school, we are not blind to the challenges of doing so during this pandemic. Any return to in-person learning must prioritize and guarantee the highest standards for health and safety. Any return must be guided by science and the expertise of educators and the parent experience and wisdom to know what is needed for support for our students’ and their families. Any return to in-person learning also must have renewed commitments to funding and support so schools are not just ready to open on the first day of school but are safe places to learn and work for the entire school year.

For these reasons and more, we are calling for the 2020-2021 school year to begin with remote learning and instruction and then following CDC guidelines, begin in-person instruction only after 14 consecutive days of no new cases of COVID-19. Protecting the safety of West Virginia educators, students, and families requires this action. We believe it is the right approach and will allow time for further evaluation of health matrices, continual and consistent public stakeholder input that includes the mandated Local School Improvement Councils at each school, and looking closely at the educational needs of students on a district-by-district basis to allow for a transition to a hybrid learning model after the year begins and possibly a mostly in-person model later in the school year if and when it is safe.

State Superintendent Burch has stated multiple times during the pandemic that districts need to take the state guidance they are providing that includes flexibility to look at creative and innovative options that best meets their schools needs with an emphasis on that “One Caring Adult” and the well-being and social emotional needs of the students. These options address this in a meaningful way.

Provided they are able to do so at the highest levels of safety, districts should explore hubs and/or study group models with very small groups of students is feasible with limited student populations meeting criteria for whom equity concerns around extended remote learning are greatest. Educators who feel comfortable working with these students at community spaces such as libraries, community buildings, churches, etc. should be able to do so. Parent mentors should be trained and hired to assist the educators, students, and families.

The governor should utilize the CARES Act money (and any future COVID-19 response money) to provide internet access and/or technology to families that are in need, to provide childcare for families that must work, and to explore ways to have classes outside. OUR most vulnerable STUDENTS’ needs must be addressed FIRST.

These are the immediate needs that must be addressed with the limited time and resources districts have before the school year begins. We must concurrently build long-term plans for how we will address the learning gaps and inequities that we have always known to exist and combat the structural factors that prevent the end of systemic racism and poverty and ensure ALL West Virginia students receive an equitable education and opportunity.

We are well aware that prolonged remote and or virtual learning is challenging for parents as well as for educators and students, as is a hybrid model. We urge state and county leaders and employers to be accommodating to their employees who are parents with flexible or remote work policies and state-facilitated childcare similar to what was done for healthcare workers. We must be in this together and have empathy for one another.

We must rise above politics and focus on the reality and complexities of safely reopening schools. If we open our schools too quickly and without adequate safety precautions, the result will be that some educators, students, and their family members will contract the coronavirus. Some will recover, some will face debilitating health consequences or healthcare bills that they cannot pay, and some will die. These are stubborn facts. And they are costs and consequences that we must refuse to accept.

A perfect solution does not exist. A safe one does. We urge you to support this course and sign our letter. We stand ready to work with the 55 local school systems and the West Virginia Department of Education to ensure that the coming school year is as safe and successful as possible for all of West Virginia’s students and educators.

Our website link to view and sign our platform letter: www.ourstudentsfirstwv.org.

Hosts include WV United Caucus, WV Ed Talks: LEArning from the Community, Our Future WV, and Families Leading Change

 

 

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