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Letcher board declines to stop classes for virus


The Letcher County Board of Education will not authorize a break from school as a result of COVID, despite entreaties by two board members that the school year be paused while COVID-19 is raging.

Board Member Shawn Gilley said the district needs to work out problems in the delivery of virtual classes to students in quarantine, and said it is the board’s fault that some students who are stuck at home aren’t able to keep up with their lessons.

“Because we don’t have a virtual option, or opted out of it, it has made us weak for kids in quarantine,” Gilley said, citing complaints from parents that their children who have been quarantined don’t have instruction online, and are getting behind in their schoolwork.

Superintendent Denise Yonts said because the quarantines started so early in the school year the district’s Google Chromebook computers hadn’t been issued in some cases, or didn’t have everything set up.

Board Chairwoman Mendy Boggs, who works for Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, said she is very worried about the state of the pandemic, saying every time she listens to the radio or goes to the store, she hears about more kids getting sick. She said she polled some of the parents in her district and while they are supportive of the board’s decision to require masks, they are still very concerned that school is in session while the pandemic is getting worse.

“When was the last time you heard a doctor actually cry because they don’t have a place to send a child when they know they need a vent?” she asked the board. “That’s happening here, and it’s happening in surrounding counties.”

She advocated closing schools for two weeks to see if the number of infections declines, but Board Member Will Smith questioned what difference two weeks would make.

Gilley said the district is the largest employer in the county and has to take some of the blame for students who are not keeping up because of the pandemic. He said while he didn’t think closing schools would lower the number of infections, it would give the district time to work out any kinks with the online lessons so students who are in quarantine don’t get further behind.

“We’re not going to stop it, so we have to look at what we’re here to do, and that’s educate children,” he said.

Yonts, however, was against taking time off from school. She said out of 30 COVID-19 cases among students so far this school year and 512 students quarantined, the district has identified only two infections that were transmitted in school. She also said state guideline have changed so students, who have been vaccinated sit more than three feet from an infected student and wear a mask, are no longer required to quarantine. She said the district has required masks, bought air purifiers for all classrooms, gymnasiums, and other places where students and/or staff gather, and the schools are regularly sanitized.

“We have students who have emotional and mental health needs that they are not getting (help for) when they are not in school,” she said.

She said the district isn’t perfect and the number of infections may never come down, but “we’re going to have to learn to live with it if we’re going to keep kids in school.”

Smith said taking time off will accomplish nothing, and that schools should remain in session.

“We’ve got to keep kids in schools. We’ve done everything we could possibly do to keep these kids safe,” he said. “We have 30 cases in one day in the county. Thirty kids overall in school is not bad.”

In the end, the board took no action on closing schools or changing the mask mandate.

Two deputies from the Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department were stationed at the door of the building with masks in hand in preparation for an expected anti-mask protest. No such protest materialized.

The meeting Monday night marked the first time the district has had a school presentation in more than a year. Principal Freddie Terry of Arlie Boggs Elementary told the district that the school continued to interact with students while in-person classes were cancelled. Terry said the district had an “Adopt a Turtle” program in which students passed around a stuffed turtle that each kept with them for several days, and could follow a real turtle fitted with a GPS tracker as it moves around the Florida Keys.

The stuffed turtle, Terry said, went with students on family trips, where they took pictures and sent them to the school. The turtle went as far south as Mexico, as far north as Canada and as far west as a Santa Fe, N.M. He said there are also a number of photos from within the county and nearby.

About 20 students who currently attend or did attend the school are working on internships at The Stables at Creekside Glen at Oven Fork, and have been competing in rodeo and equestrian events around the state. The students have been competing in events including barrel racing, leading Terry to joke that Arlie Boggs students are “becoming cowboys.”

“But we’re not going to change our name to the Cowboys. We’ll still be the Wildcats,” he said

Terry said that while everyone wishes the pandemic hadn’t happened, some good things have come out of it. He said without the pandemic, many of the teachers and administrators would have never learned some of the things on computers that they do regularly in the classroom now. He said among the best things they did were drive-thru parent nights and an outdoor graduation. The drive-thrus, he said, drew more parents than the staff ever see on walk-in parent nights, and the outdoor graduation solved all the problems with acoustics and crowding in the gymnasium.

Terry also praised students, some of whom are coming back to the classroom after nearly a year and a half of working from home.

“They have been awesome,” he said. “They are excited. It’s almost as if it’s a brand-new experience for them – even the eighth graders.”

He said there have been no complaints from students or parents about masks.

Terry also singled out students who have had accomplishments in extracurricular activities, including Story Schuler, who came in second in the nation in archery, and Alyssa Martin, who won an art contest sponsored by Backroads of Appalachia.

Terry said there have been “a lot of mixed emotions” in the community about the car and motorcycle events sponsored by Backroads of Appalachia, but the organization has been a good partner for the school.

“Tourism is probably our best chance to keep some jobs,” he said.

He also praised The General Store at Creek Crossing and Meridzo Ministries, which operates the Stables at Creekside Glen, for help they have given the school.

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