Mingo County Schools Superintendent Don Spence and Assistant Superintendent Johnny Branch had been holding out hope that the New Year would bring better fortunes to the county and that at some point students would be able to return to a classroom setting inside a brick and mortar school building.
Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement last week that he has changed the school schedule—which, with a qualifier, will allow the state's students to return to in-person instruction beginning after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — has ostensibly made that hope a reality.
The governor’s plan calls for all elementary and middle schools statewide to reopen on Tuesday, Jan. 19, with the state’s color-coded mapping system no longer applying to the schools in these grade levels.
The exception will be for all high school students, who for the time being will remain under the current mapping system. (Those high schools in an orange or lower classification will be able to attend in-class instruction as well; however, a red classification will keep them in the remote learning model until a lower color designation can be achieved in their respective counties.)
Justice based the exception for high schools on the science that children 14 years old and younger transmit the virus at a lower rate than do children above 14.
He said it was imperative that the state’s children get back into school due to loss of engagement with both teachers and fellow students, as well as because “we are failing; failing across the board.”
Extracting a positive from a negative
Although the COVID-19 pandemic, with just a few exceptions, kept the county in orange or red on the school alert map system from the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in August through the end of December, both Spence and Branch are confident that something positive came from the otherwise negative remote learning experience.
“We have followed the governor’s and the state department’s directives since the beginning and we will follow them now, and we’re very happy that our kids are going to have the opportunity to go back to school,” Spence said.
“Obviously we will not be utilizing the remote learning tools as much as we did in the fall months, but the tools will continue to be a valuable asset for us going forward because we will be able to instruct our students no matter the circumstances.”
Spence said these circumstances could be anything from all the county’s schools being closed due to inclement weather to high school students being in the remote learning model due to a red designation on the school alert map.
Irrespective of the circumstances that might dictate the usage of the remote learning tools, Spence and Branch believe that both teachers and students will continue, as best they can, to make it all work while waiting for things to again completely normalize.
Turning a bad situation into a tolerable one
During a recent interview with the Messenger, Spence and Branch weighed in on how the pandemic has to this point detrimentally affected schools all across the state, and how everyone still has some time to go before normality is again achieved.
They also discussed some of the ways Mingo County administrators have attempted to mitigate these effects during the past months through remote and virtual instruction, as well as through incentive programs designed to get more student and parent participation.
“New technologies are always hard in the very beginning … some teachers were already using the tools and early on were able to bring parents to the schools to help them navigate the tools,” Branch said regarding remote learning. “However, I can say this: generally it was rough in the beginning because there was a big learning curve, but since that time our teachers have acquired more complex skills and gotten better at doing remote, basically because of all the practice they’ve had.
“In fact, many of our teachers became so skilled they were able to conduct workshops and teach other teachers who might have been struggling with certain aspects of the tools.”
Spence said another problem area, one that has been experienced statewide, is student participation in the remote learning models.
He said there are various contributing factors. Some of these, he explained, include everything from Internet connectivity issues, at-home instruction/guidance from an adult due to both parents working, to parents and students simply believing the assignments are not graded and “don’t count,” as he pointed out was the case statewide during the last few weeks of the 2019-20 school year.
“There’s no question that participation, at least on some scale, has been a problem, and here in Mingo County we have been taking steps to incentivize that,” Spence said. “We’re working with the schools, staying in constant contact with our social workers and initiating new programs, all of which we hope will help with the problem.”
Branch said one of the ways Mingo County is combating the cases of non-participation is through a district-wide incentive program being individually developed at all the county’s schools called “Courage to Succeed.”
“Our teachers are courageous, our families are courageous, and our students are courageous, and it takes courage from each of these to bring success to our students,” Branch said. “Parents have had to support their kids at home in ways they’ve never had to do before. Our kids are having to overcome challenges to do well as never before, and our teachers have had to overcome so many challenges to provide instruction during this pandemic.
“So, we’re confident that these incentive programs being put together by our schools will encourage more student participation and success as we go forward and for whatever reason it becomes necessary,” he continued.
No substitute for in-person instruction
Like all educators, Spence and Branch understand students learn far more efficiently when they are in the classroom. They also know just how vitally important it is to students’ mental and physical well being that they get the everyday social interaction and support they depend on from both fellow classmates and teachers.
And both are also keenly aware of the fact that students have been repeatedly denied advantages that historically have been demonstrated to be major players in their academic achievement.
“Social interaction and daily routine are just so important and our kids have been denied that,” Spence said. “There are just so many connections there that have been lost so far this year.
“The connections with their teachers and all the other people who care about them have not been there. We know they’re cared for at home, but they get the extra advantage of being cared for when they get to go to school…there are just so many positive things connected to kids being at school. Obviously that’s why we are so excited about them getting the chance to experience that again.”
While the problems with remote learning continue to be many and varied, both Spence and Branch believe none of them have been insurmountable or represent any that can’t be mitigated to some degree, even benefitted from, through a persistent concerted effort on everyone’s part in the event of future necessity.
“It’s by no means has been a perfect situation, but honestly we don’t look at as having been problems because we’ve done the best we can, the teachers have done the best they can, and we think we’ve learned and will continue to learn as we go forward,” Spence said. “We realize this is a situation we haven’t been able to control, whether we were in school or out of school, so we plan to just keep doing everything we can to make sure our students succeed. That’s our number one priority.”
Branch agreed that remote learning has been and will continue to be a challenge for both students and teachers alike. But, like Spence, he also doesn’t believe the summit is so high that it can’t be successfully reached when everyone is called upon to climb toward it.
“We have to be prepared for any situation, for days we can be in school and days we have to be remote,” he said. “We have been this entire semester providing the schools and the teachers with support and knowledge as to what good instruction online looks like and how to effectively use it. And our teachers have been eager to show how they’re implementing those practices. So there have been tremendous benefits gained through all this as well, benefits that will be invaluable to our school system even after we return to the classroom later this month.”