By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, W.Va. – The first day of school in McDowell County was met with a sigh of relief after months of planning and preparation according to McDowell County Schools officials and employees at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
“Today was our first day of school. We got a few calls but for the most part, it has gone really well,” said Falin. “Our staff, they’ve all been fantastic, adapting to the new norms of revised schedules, bus schedules, times, new learning management systems.”
Currently in a two week phase in period, McDowell County Schools are adapting to constant change to work out any kinks in the plan according to Falin.
“This also gives bus drivers time to work out their schedules. They worked really hard on new schedules with new times,” said Falin. “They also will have schedules created for the days we don’t have school, if we had to go remote, so that we can deliver lunches to students on those days.”
Schools are stocked and ready with supplies to deal with COVID-19 precautions with more at the Central Office when they get low.
“Pretty well everyone from drivers, principals, teachers, cooks, have done everything that we’ve asked them to do,” said Falin. “I know we’ll have challenges but we’ll work through them together. I think we’ll have a good year.”
“What is the amount of students going to schools versus Virtual Learning,” asked Mike Mitchem.
“It’s about 50/50. We had a few call today wanting to switch to in-person learning and a few called wishing to go Virtual instead,” said Falin. “September 18th is a blended learning day for us to look at those requests and make changes.
After September 18th, it will prove to be more difficult for students to transfer between the two learning options.
“We can’t really make changes back and forth because if we’ve got social distancing and classrooms spaced out, we might not always have room to go back and forth,” said Falin. “We’ve already had one incident of a positive case at Southside. Then people get afraid and want to go virtual. That probably won’t be the last positive case so people will want to change. But you can’t do that on a whim, you have to be prepared for that.”
Falin said on September 18th, they’ll revisit schedules with any new requests, adjusting as needed to accommodate all families.
“I remember we approved the PPE supplies, do you remember how much it was,” asked Mike Mitchem.
“How much money it was? I’d be afraid to even say Mr. Mitchem,” said Falin.
“It was close to a million dollars right,” said Mitchem.
“Yes, and we’ve ordered a lot of things. We have everything we need to open school, plenty of face coverings. The thing we’re having the most difficulty with are wipes, but we have enough to get started. The only thing we weren’t able to get were gowns for school nurses in the event of a case at school,” said Falin.
After speaking with McDowell County 911 Center’s Director Teresa VanDyke in regards to the nurse gowns, VanDyke gave them enough to last until the school system’s shipment arrives.
“I know we’ll make mistakes, but we’ll correct them as we move forward,” said Falin.
Teachers present at Monday’s Board of Education meeting shared their first day experiences as well.
“Our day went good. The buses came in a bit slow, but that’s to be expected. There were very few schedule glitches and things really ran smoothly,” said Greg Cruey. “With the middle schoolers, I was surprised to see how excited the students coming from 5th grade were to be online and just have class. The 6th graders in particular had a buzz of excitement.”
“As elementary teachers, I think we’re just a little nervous with our kids because they are learning how to do things and it makes it a little harder,” said Gwen Lacy. “The six foot distancing and keeping their masks on when we go out in the hallway, but they’re learning. It will just take a little while to adjust.”
McDowell County Schools still await the shipment of new learning technology, still expected to ship in mid-October.
“I’m happy that the first day of school happened. It’s really like a sigh of relief,” said Lacy.
“I felt a sense of that as well when I saw the buses on the road. It perked my morning up,” said Falin.
“Do we supply masks for staff or do they bring their own,” asked Georgia West.
“We have plenty of masks but a lot of them brought their own,” said Falin.
Board member Georgia West also took the time to share a sympathetic moment for parents adjusting to virtual learning at home this year.
“I have a lot of compassion for parents choosing to do virtual because I had two grandsons at my house doing virtual learning from their school in Alabama,” said West. “Trying to fix a place for them to sit that the internet didn’t kick them out was tough. Then I had a 2 ½ year old baby that wants to play. We wore Alexa out during the break times, setting timers. She stayed really busy timing them to get them back to their Zoom lessons. I did it for three days, and I’ve got a lot of compassion for the parents with babies and older children in the house.”
“We’ve tried to communicate that this wouldn’t be last minute like when we had to shut down in March,” said Falin. “It will be distance learning now, not engagement like in March, April and May last year. There will be actual instruction.”
One of the early agenda items was the approval of Superintendent Carolyn Falin’s goals for the new school year.
“The first two goals are required, one being increasing student achievement, which is measured by the Balanced Scorecard, and the second being collaborate with our schools that are on comprehensive school improvement, which are Mount View High School, Sandy River Middle School, Welch Elementary and Southside K-8. Those are required by law.”
Last year’s third goal was to improve attendance, but with virtual learning taking place this year, Falin shifted her focus to the county’s school re-entry plan, specifically monitoring the outcomes of the plan’s clearly defined safety protocols and learning outcomes.
“Well I know you’ve all did a lot of work on getting us back in school, I think we did a really good job and hope everything will be safe,” said David Williams.
“You did a good job,” said Margaret Beavers.
“It won’t be for a lack of trying, everybody is giving everything they can, schools and all,” said Falin.
The Superintendent’s goals were approved.
The Board also voted to approve the sports schedules for the upcoming school year, knowing they are tentative at best.
“Those schedules can change at the last minute. I think Mount View was supposed to play Man initially, but that was cancelled because they were a red county. They’re working with other schools to make sure they get enough games in for playoffs. But it will change,” said Falin.
A School Service Personnel Proclamation from Governor Jim Justice was read, declaring Septenber 23rd School Service Personnel Day in West Virginia. The Board approved to recognize the day in McDowell County as well.
The McDowell County Board of Education’s next meeting will be held on September 21st, 2020 at the Phoenix Center in Welch at 4:30 p.m.