DeVos Praises School Reopening Efforts On Visit To Jefferson County
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos heard from principals, teachers, custodial staff, a band director, students and parents - all from Jefferson County Schools - who shared positive feedback on the district’s approach to fall 2020.
DeVos came to Kearneysville on Thursday to attend the in-person event and highlight the success the district has experienced since resuming school Sept. 8.
“It's the unanimous commitment that I heard from those surrounding the table here, to doing what's right for students, and to doing what it takes,” DeVos said. “And the tremendous collaboration that has taken place to ensure that kids could be back in school, in-person learning.”
Shortly after schools in West Virginia were closed in March, the Jefferson County School district began working to create a safe, in-person schooling environment for the fall, while at the same time polishing a virtual school model that syncs up with in-person learners.
County education officials ramped up cleaning efforts, and served more than 300,000 meals to students in the spring and summer. They held Zoom meetings throughout the summer with the community to collect feedback. They also got more devices like laptops and tablets into the hands of teachers and students, and even offered training for teachers in self-care.
Shepherdstown Middle School teacher and coach Kevin Holmes said despite his health problems and his doctor advising him not to return to in-person work, he feels safe after seeing the efforts to keep schools clean.
“[I have] high blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnea, diabetes. I'm probably at the top of list as the health risk in Jefferson County Schools,” Holmes said. “But when I came in … the floors were spotless, you could probably eat off of them, and all the supplies - we have magic wands to clean our keyboards. There’s no reason for me not to come back.”
Holmes argued his place was in the school - that he needed to be there for his kids.
Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Bondy Shay Gibson pointed out that many of the efforts her district has made to make school safer will be here to stay post-COVID.
“Even when there's no more COVID, we don't go back to how we were,” Gibson said. “That's not how life works. So, a lot of the lessons that we've learned now, they've been hard lessons, but they're getting us ready, I think, for a pretty amazing future.”
About half of students throughout Jefferson County are attending school virtually, according to officials. The West Virginia Department of Education reports, however, that statewide, the majority of learners opted to attend in person.
West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch was also at the event. He said Jefferson County’s reopening plan is a great model and noted that it was Jefferson County that stepped up first with a reopening plan. He also said it was the first one he presented to the state Board of Education. He reiterated a message, though, that in-person schooling is key to successful learning.
“I've been critical since March and throughout the summer of remote learning, and I will continue to be critical of remote learning,” Burch said. “It is not what's best for children. It is not how we all learn. We must take care of our children. Remote learning in the state of West Virginia did not and is not working.”
Despite this criticism of remote learning, Burch did acknowledge that more needs to be done to ensure virtual schooling is accessible to those who need it in the state. He mentioned that he appreciates the Kids Connect Initiative, which created more than 1,000 WiFi hotspots throughout the state to help K-12 and higher education students, but said it’s not enough.
“Until every child in the state of West Virginia has access to high-quality internet, and every teacher, then we have not equalized the playing field for all,” Burch said.
DeVos echoed the importance of expanding access to virtual learning.
“This pandemic has revealed the benefits that technology can bring in new and unique ways,” DeVos said. “And I think that a lot of teachers and education leaders are also acknowledging and realizing that technology can be used effectively, in ways that we can really look forward to using it going forward, in ways that had not heretofore been considered.”
All West Virginia schools are required by the governor to offer in-person, virtual, and hybrid learning. Whether a county can offer in-person schooling is determined weekly by a color-coded map that offers updates on COVID-19 infection rates.