Mingo County was unable to start its in-person school schedule earlier this week due to the county having moved over the weekend from yellow to orange in the state's color-coded metrics system.

Despite acknowledging at the time that this delay was a real possibility, however, the Mingo County Board of Education determined last week that the county would stay the course with the school system's overall reentry plan.

The board's decision, made Friday, Sept. 4, during a special audio-streamed meeting, also came in the wake of a number of positive COVID-19 cases having been confirmed and reported earlier last week at Mingo Central High School and the Central Office, as well as confirmed group exposure having occurred within the MCHS football team.

As a result of the new color designation, the county was required to begin the school year with its remote learning model for all students on Thursday, Sept. 10, and it will be required to continue this model until its average number of positive cases is reduced and it returns to either a yellow or green designation. This determination is based on a 7-day rolling average of new cases and is updated each Saturday evening.

The start date was delayed two days so computers for remote learning could be distributed to and picked up Tuesday and Wednesday by students at their respective schools who originally had opted for the in-person learning model

With specific safety measures having for weeks been put into place and fine-tuned before the Sept. 8 start date, the overall reentry plan, which the board approved in early July, entailed a blended option which provides students with in-person learning Monday through Thursday and remote learning on Fridays.

The plan also called for virtual learning for students who opted not to attend in-person classes. This option provides students with instruction via a digital curriculum during scheduled student/teacher video/audio conferencing sessions outlined for advising and tutoring.

Board President James Ed Baisden began the specially called meeting by saying it was not a forum intended to change the reentry plan; but rather, one that would provide an opportunity for board members to discuss these latest developments, address questions, and, as much as possible, allay as many of the concerns being voiced by personnel, parents, and students as possible.

"I thought it as very important to inform the public of everything that is going on...but my personal opinion is that the plan we have in place right now is fine, but since the outbreak came out at Mingo Central, we need to give it a week or two weeks to let things heal there and let the health department make sure everyone is safe before going back into that building," he said. "Since we have no outbreaks in any of our other schools, I really have no problem with them starting back."

Board Vice-President John Preece agreed with Baisden.

"We have a policy in place of things to do, and I also agree that to allay the fears of parents and students and the personnel, that it would warrant delaying the start (at Mingo Central) in person for at least a week," Preece said. "Of course things change rapidly and we have to be prepared for these changes, but I agree that other than Mingo Central everyone else in the county should be able to start back on Sept. 8. It will be one of those day to day situations, and we just have to make sure our children are protected and our employees are protected."

Board member Tom Slone said he also had received numerous calls and emails regarding the recent developments, and added that they had been equally split when it came to offering opinions on the matter.

"Half want their kids to still go back in person and half want the virtual learning. I think, and this is just my opinion, as long as we listen to the health department and follow the matrix that's been set up by the county and state, I think we'll be safe on any decision we make ... as long as we base it on that."

Board member Sabrina Grace said the calls and emails she has received, both from parents and school personnel, have also been equally divided.

Grace pointed out that the safety protocol measures having already been put into place by the county, along with the state's color-coded metrics, essentially takes into account increased positive cases that might occur in the county.

"If we have increased cases we're going to be orange or red, and we cannot start school orange or red," she said. "I'm not totally confident that we're going to be able to start school in person at all, but the system in place takes care of that.

"We need to look at the best amount of consistency we as a county can offer...our students are looking forward (to returning to school), and I feel if we keep changing what's already in place then we're losing the trust of people that need the structure and who count on us for stability."

Board member Machelle McCormick also expressed the importance of students needing structure and stability that she additionally believes only in-class learning can meet. But because in many instances classroom sizes can't be reduced enough to satisfy proper social distancing, which she said was one of the major concerns parents and teachers had expressed to her, the board might want to reconsider a two-day rotation.

That alternative restart to school would have some students attending the first two days, the remaining students the second two days, with virtual instruction being conducted three days for all students.

"Along with other concerns, the class sizes are a huge issue...I don't know if we could consider doing the A & B schedule, but if we can make the class sizes smaller it might be something we could talk about," McCormick said. "At first I didn't like that idea, that it was important for them to be at school like it's always been. But it's not like as it's always been and we really want to do what's right, what's the safest and healthiest thing to do for our students and teachers."

Superintendent Don Spence reiterated the importance of structure and consistency and how these are best achieved with students being in the classroom.

"I can certainly understand all the fear and apprehension out there with this disease, but I want to assure everyone that I'm in constant contact with the health department and Mr. (Keith) Blankenship and together we try to make the best possible decisions for our schools," Spence said. "And as we go forward with our school year, that's exactly what we're going to have to do. We'll have to take it case by case and whatever comes up; and our communication with one another, along with the metrics system put in place by the governor ... that has to guide us in what we're doing with our kids, and with our plan, I believe that's the best way going forward."

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