Article XII, Section 1 of the West Virginia Constitution states that “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.” This promise to the people of the state is the foundation of our public education system. As much as the legislature is charged with providing general law for the thorough and efficient system of free schools, the administration of that system is left to the County School Boards and the State Board of Education.
Our parents and children have been kept from a full year of a thorough and efficient system of free schools over the last four years due to the strike of 2018, the strike of 2019, and the Covid-19 shutdown for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. What this means is a child that started ninth grade in the 2017-2018 school year will graduate this year without having a complete year of high school. How have we prepared that child for the world?
Currently, our children in Raleigh County will be engaging in “virtual” learning through the remainder of the year with hope they can resume school in January. While the public schools have provided electronic devices to all of the children, there is still the issue of adequate internet service in some parts of the county. Areas from the southwest corner of the county to areas such as Daniels, including a vast portion of Glade Springs, have no service from Suddenlink. I have spoken to constituents that do not have Suddenlink available to them and must use Frontier and report only getting 5 mbps. This makes virtual schooling impossible for a large number of parents. These parents are now reporting that their child is being marked absent for not attending the zoom conference call during these remote learning days.
To be clear, many of these parents stand ready on any given morning to bring their children to the schoolhouse, but due to the measures put in place by the Governor and the School Boards, these children are being required to utilize technology they may not have access to in order to be counted as having attended a day of instruction. While the legislature has provided general law it is now being ignored by the individuals who have been charged with administering the system.
Where does that leave these parents? Parents that may have had to quit a job in order to stay home and be with their children are now tasked with figuring out how to get reliable internet service that may not be available to them at any price. Maybe the parent cannot quit working and a teenager is left at home alone to navigate their instructional day alone. The Governor was provided with over a billion dollars of federal funding, part of which could be used to install reliable fiber optic cable to these areas, but he has refused to distribute the needed funds or consult with the legislature as is mandated by the constitution.
The bottom line is we are not fulfilling that promise to the parents and children of West Virginia. They do not have a thorough and efficient system of free schools. Though the Governor’s office refuses to post the figures anywhere, the fact is not one child under the age of 18 has died of Covid-19 in this state. While it is true that many of these children have parents at home that could be immunocompromised, or could be being raised by grandparents as a great many of children in our state are, these same parents and grandparents go to Walmart, visit McDonald’s, and engage in public every day. Moreover, a drive through the neighborhood not less than 3 days ago showed packs of children enjoying 62 degree weather mask-free and well within six feet of one another. There is a difference between making exceptions in spectacular circumstances and enforcing the worst-case scenario on the population as a whole. We should be working to accommodate the irregular to keep the regular as close to normal as possible.
Keeping the children from school is not protecting them, but is putting many of our youth at risk. In the winter months these children cannot walk down to the fire department and pick up a free meal for that day. They cannot play outside to avoid an abusive parent. They cannot engage in the sport of their choice that keeps them out of trouble. They are going through the harshest months of the year without support from their school community. More children are going to be hurt, abused, or worse due to how we are administering our school system at this time. We are letting these children down as well as their parents.
Both teachers’ unions in this state have come out publicly and demanded that schools continue to operate remotely until this crisis is over, presumably with the introduction of a vaccine. Even if a vast majority of people vaccinated, many experts have said that the virus, like a flu virus, will mutate and subsequent vaccines will be needed. We are not even sure of the vaccine’s effectiveness on the population as a whole.
As a legislature we must act to provide for a system of thorough and efficient free schools. Some of the ideas that sparked controversy over the previous two sessions are now being demanded by parents. I have had countless parents, exacerbated by working 10-hour days and educating their children during every other waking hour, demand that if the state will not follow through and properly educate their children that they be provided the resources to do it themselves.
Providing parents with educational savings accounts, tax credits for private school tuition, charter schools that serve to reduce the student density and provide individual attention, and many more innovations are exactly what many of these parents are demanding. If these measures were in place now our children could be in small group settings in charter schools, or in the private school of their choice.
The people of West Virginia have been left with one option for a thorough and efficient system of free schools. That system is letting our children and parents down on a daily basis. The legislature does not administer the school system. It does, however, provide for the system by general law. It is time that the legislature listen to the parents and give them the options they are guaranteed by our Cons