School matters. It matters in the lives of the children, families and communities of West Virginia. COVID-19 has disrupted the daily operations of our lives, and in-person instruction has been among the most significant casualties. If we only talked about the importance of education it would be enough, but the pandemic has proven that school is about so much more than this. Without in-person instruction, our children fall behind academically, socially/emotionally, physically and in almost all indicators of childhood growth and development.

January 2021 marks a critical milestone. We are 10 months past the March 13th date when schools moved to remote instruction and our businesses, organizations and broader support agencies shuttered as we learned about COVID-19. We are also eight months from the start of the 2021-22 school year. This proves time does not stop during a pandemic, and students’ education cannot either. It is for this reason that the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) must continue to advocate for the return to in-person learning in safe school environments.

We know more about COVID-19 than we did 10 months ago. We understand the importance of rigorously implemented and practiced mitigations, and we have seen the data that tells the story best: our schools are safe when we do the right things.

We also know that humans are not wired to be alone. The pandemic has required that we retreat to our homes and away from one another. In doing this, our children and at-risk populations suffered tremendously. In partnership with the WVDE, county school systems and state partners have worked tirelessly to support children’s nutritional needs, to keep eyes on students and to keep them engaged in remote and virtual learning platforms. Like the rest of the nation, without our children physically with us in school, these efforts are incredibly challenging. Too many of our children rely on that one caring adult to connect them back to the school system that also serves as their only pillar of stability.

Shedding light on the dark side of COVID-19 tells a story many did not know existed. Child protective service referrals have hit an all-time low, which means the adults who report child abuse and neglect are not able to do so because children are not in school; one-third of our children are failing core content areas compared to this time last year; and the social/emotional trauma children are suffering threatens to have a lasting impact on their learning and overall development.

However, there is light ahead. Data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) proves that schools are safe for in-person instruction even when counties and communities experience elevated transmission rates. Why? Because when masks are worn and other protocols are practiced, the virus doesn’t travel from host to host. The education community will soon be vaccinated, and the transmission in communities will decrease over the spring and summer.

The purpose of this document, The West Virginia Schools Recovery Roadmap, is to share lessons learned and outline how we can collectively restore learning, development and progress among our children. With the data telling the story best, the Recovery Roadmap will guide efforts to provide consistent in-person learning and a pathway for schools, students and communities to rebuild a sustainable educational growth model for the future.