Mercer back to school

Mercer County students board the bus for their first day back to school after the pandemic’s onset in this Sept. 2020 file photo.

PRINCETON — Making going to school as normal as possible while keeping students, teachers and staff safe when they return to class Sept. 7 is the goal of a plan crafted by the Mercer County Schools system.

The Roadmap to Recovery 2021 plan outlines measures for cleaning and disinfecting, evaluating large gatherings outside of classrooms, face coverings and quarantine guidance. Students in grades K through 12 are returning to class Sept. 7, and Pre-K students start going to school on Sept. 9.

“As we look ahead to schools starting again after an unusual year and a half, we must be flexible and open-minded about a return to normalcy,” Superintendent Edward T. Toman said. “We have all lost something during the pandemic: the ability to visit extended family, a regular school schedule, attend graduations, the feeling of being connected to each other, and some of us have even tragically lost loved ones of COVID-19. Our teachers, nurses, social workers, counselors and other staff stand ready to support our kids and envelop them in a positive, engaging environment.”

Under the Roadmap to Recovery 2021 plan, wearing masks will be voluntary, but the school system reserves the right to again require face coverings for all employees and students ages 9 and older if community transmission of COVID-19 increases or health officials and/or the governor decide it’s necessary. The school system will follow the current local, stand and federal guidelines.

Toman said that if masks became necessary again, they would most likely appear on school buses first since students are closer together.

One goal is to make going to school as normal as possible.

“The plan as of right now is just to reopen schools on a normal, full-time, pre-COVID schedule,” said Paul Hodges, president of the Mercer County Board of Education, adding that this includes not requiring masks and using social distancing as a precaution.

Hodges said the school system will respond to changes recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“If the situation changes, so we’ll have to change, too,” he stated.

The Roadmap to Recovery 2021 plan notes that Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available in West Virginia. Toman said the school system could not require vaccinations, but the West Virginia Department of Education is encouraging students, teachers and staff to get them.

The state department of education recently announced its “I Got Vaxxed” contest offering prizes to schools with the highest numbers of vaccinated people. On Oct.1, schools across the state can submit the number of faculty, staff and students vaccinated in their school and be eligible for a $5,000 drawing to use for any student-based activity, according to state school officials. The high school, middle school, and elementary school with the largest percentage of vaccinated staff and students will each win the prize.

Cleaning and disinfecting schools and buses and making sanitation supplies available are part of the plan as well. Contact tracing with the Mercer County Health Department is covered in the plan as well, according to the Roadmap to Recover 2021 document. In cases requiring quarantining, the class, bus and cafeteria seating charts will be reviewed, and only students who were within 6 feet of an infected person would be quarantined as opposed to quarantining an entire class. Any student or school employee who is fully vaccinated will not be required to go into quarantine.

In previous years, students returned from their summer break in early or mid August, but this year they will return on Sept. 7.

Todd Browning, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said that every year a calendar committee which includes members of the community as well as educators and school employees explore different options for the school year. They will draft several proposed calendars for the school year. After voting on the top choice, it’s submitted to the board of education.

The previous school year started late and had a condensed calendar, Browning said. This year, the calendar has a later date for returning to school.

“They liked starting after Labor Day,” he said. “That seemed to be the choice of the majority and that was chosen. As we are preparing for the school year, it’s a blessing to have a little more time to consider the circumstances.”

Besides a later starting date, the new school calendar also does not have make up days for inclement weather, Browning said. If snow or other bad weather closes schools, days could be subtracted from spring break to make up for lost instructional time. Extending the school year is another option.

The entire Roadmap to Recovery 2021 plan is available on the Mercer County Schools website.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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