As we begin the month of August, the big question facing parents and school administrators across the region is how to ensure the safety of children when, and if, they return to the classroom.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice has indicated that the earliest schools can reopen will be September 8. But some neighboring Virginia counties, including Tazewell County, hope to have children back in the classroom a lot sooner. In fact, Tazewell County is planning to reopen schools on Aug. 17.

The county school board’s plan is to allow for in-person instruction four days a week. However, students may opt to stay home for online instruction. On Wednesdays, all students will receive remote instruction. For those students who choose to be in classrooms, schools will be open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 1:40 p.m. and schools will be closed on Wednesdays for disinfecting.

The school system also has purchased thousands of masks and face shields, has installed bottle filling stations to replace water fountains, and bought 500 thermometers to check staff and student temperatures every morning, David Woodard, school board chairman, said.

In Mercer County, the Board of Education adopted a school reopening plan last week that affords the school system plenty of flexibility. Two plans were approved for bringing students back to school plus a virtual learning option for families who want children to stay at home. 

First, there is Model A where students attend school five days a week; however, the days will be shortened. Elementary school students will start their instructional days at 7:30 a.m. and leave school at 1 p.m. Middle school students will start their days at 8:45 a.m. and depart at 2:56 p.m. High schools will start their days at 8:52 a.m. and leave school at 2:41 p.m.

The Model B plan has the same times for starting class and leaving school except half the students will be in class every other day. Students who are at home will have remote learning. This would allow for smaller classes because only half a school’s population will be there at one time.

Parents in Mercer County can choose the virtual school option if they’re uneasy with either Plan A or Plan B.

Remote learning includes online/virtual instruction, paper packets, tele-instruction and/or other mediums that students may participate in while they are physically away from the school building. In virtual learning, students would be online 100 percent of the time without physically coming to school.

In McDowell County, a questionnaire recently emailed to parents, teachers and students is seeking input on how to reopen schools in September. Feedback received from the questionnaire will be used by the county’s Re-Entry Task Force to develop a back-to-school strategy.

“It’s an awesome responsibility, believe me,” Mike Calloway, a member of the McDowell County Board of Education, said. “We’re not taking this lightly. It’s something that’s very important to southern West Virginia. That is probably going to be one of the most important decisions this board will have to make.”

Indeed. School officials, and parents in particular, will have some tough decisions to make in the weeks ahead.

Unless we see a significant decrease in local virus numbers here in the coalfield counties, some parents will likely have continued reservations about letting their children return to school.

While we don’t foresee West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice or Virginia Governor Ralph Northam canceling another school year, it is possible that there could be further disruptions or delays in the school schedule if COVID-19 numbers don’t slow down.

That makes the job of getting ready for a return to school all the more difficult.

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