This state’s Board of Ed says no to fully remote instruction

The limitations to online learning are too great to overcome, say West Virginia officials. So on Tuesday, the directive to counties is to have no solely-at-home option.
By: | January 14, 2021
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After more than four months of experimenting, one state said it is done with full remote learning.

The West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday voted to move all PreK-8 learning to in-person in some form – including some limited hybrid models – shutting down the possibility of families who prefer to have their children attend classes completely online.

In its motion, the Board of Ed cited that face-to-face instruction was “the best mode in which to foster a student’s intellectual, social-emotional, and physical growth and well-being”, even if COVID-19 positivity was high in specific districts.

This was part of the statement it released in rendering its decision:

“PreK-8 schools will attend in-person instruction regardless of their county’s color on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) County Alert System map. All PreK-8 students will resume in-person instruction on January 19. Counties do not have the option to implement full countywide remote learning for PreK-8 students.”

There are, however, caveats with the plan, many of them tied to the prevalence of COVID-19 within schools. Though the Board of Education made the mandated learning in-person regardless of virus level, individual counties still can decide when classrooms can be shuttered if there are cases or outbreaks. Even then, the state Board of Ed warned, “such closures shall be of limited duration and related to the specific health need of the school or classroom.”

The Board issued three other directives to counties regarding PreK-8 schools:

  1. They are being asked to have 4-5 in-person days of teaching
  2. Counties can opt for blended models, but they must provide at least two days of on-site instruction
  3. That meals and special education services, as well as support for at-risk students continue to be provided

More from DA: How rural schools sought opportunity in school closures

There are different rules for those in grades 9-12. High school students must attend in person or be in a blended model unless their county is red, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources map. Once that occurs, students are automatically shifted to online learning but then moved back to in-person if that color changes.

Why now?

Though the West Virginia Board of Education and its State Superintendent Clayton Burch have expressed the benefits of students returning to school, the largely rural state also has notably lagged in broadband internet connectivity, an essential piece to online learning.

In a study done by BroadbandNow Research, West Virginia ranked 44th out of 50 for Best and Worst States for Internet Coverage, Prices and Speeds, 2020, with only 69% of customers having access across the state, according to those researchers. Nearby New Jersey, by comparison, delivers it to 98%. Less than 40% of West Virginia residents have access to low-priced plans. In New Jersey, that number is 78.5%.

Even those that do have broadband in West Virginia don’t have the speeds that other states have. The average consumer’s download speed is 101.2 Mbps, while in neighboring Maryland it is 196.2.

How can a state like West Virginia ensure equity of learning when it is not available, potentially too costly or too slow?

To try to close those gaps, Gov. Jim Justice announced in August a $6 million plan to place 1,000 wi-fi hotspots across the state, at the time stating, “We will absolutely deliver a quality education to [students] for the time period that they decide not to come to the school.”

Those hotspots are active throughout the state, but the barriers to learning remotely for students – accessing internet at locations such as libraries, churches, buses parks, and even from home – has not been the same as those who attend in classrooms, West Virginia officials say.

“We have given a great effort; we’ve seen great improvements,” said Jackson County Superintendent Blaine Hess said in a conversation with Burch, highlighting the work of teachers and parents. “But there are limitations to remote learning. We do not necessarily get the same outcome that we would get with face-to-face learning. Despite our best efforts and great progress with remote learning, it still is lacking in some ways that only face-to-face interaction and the relationship with students brings to bear.”

Hess said that although his district has been able to get devices into students’ hands, including 500 in its virtual school, he said the outcomes have been less than desirable.

“Some students have been very successful, but we also have a segment of our student body … that aren’t as engaged,” he said. “Some of them, unfortunately, have been absolutely missing in action, they have not signed on at all. In some cases, we’ve been tracking those students down. So, you really worry about the educational impact that that will have on the student long term.”

The problem isn’t unique to West Virginia. Nationwide, 18 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet. Other studies have cited the potential learning loss both in math and reading for those students operating fully remotely, though there have been districts that have reported with success not only in achieving full device and internet rollout for students, as the state of Nevada said last week, and also in synchronous instruction.

One of the potential barriers Hess mentioned was parent involvement in ensuring the success of students.

“Even within personal learning, it takes a supportive home environment for students to be successful,” he said. “The school is a certainly an important ingredient, the teacher is an important ingredient. But we have to partner with the students and the support they have at home to make the very best of that situation. If someone is not pushing or encouraging that student in that virtual environment, to be logged on regularly, to keep up with their lessons, then they’re not getting the benefit that is intended.”

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