Bluefield High cheerleaders hype up the crowd at the school's game against the Greenbrier East High Spartans. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

Bluefield, WV – The parking lot was quiet and nearly pitch black. But inside the gymnasium, several hundred noisy spectators gathered around the court. And even though it was Tuesday night, their spirits were high, like the weekend was starting. 

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O! Go Beavers, Go Beavers, Go!” yelled the Bluefield High cheerleaders, as the school’s Varsity Boys Basketball team prepared to face the Greenbrier East High Spartans. 

Shawn Williams was sitting in the stands, like she often does. She’s taught at Bluefield High for over a decade and tries to come to as many games as possible. 

It was hard for the community to miss out on moments like this during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.  

“Everything stopped. To have our sports games, and our basketball season cut short… We had a theater production in progress, and we were unable to do it until the spring of 2022,” said Williams, who teaches English and theater.

She nodded at the group of students standing several rows in front of her. Like Williams, they cheered and clapped when the Beavers made a basket. They groaned and buried their heads in their hands when the team missed a shot. 

“I think they struggled with being isolated from their friends, not having that face-to-face time in class to discuss,” Williams said.

Students struggled nationwide during the pandemic, with test scores dropping and concerns about childrens’ mental health growing. But in West Virginia, many struggled more than most, as the state’s results on national standardized assessments amounted to its lowest performance ever.

In a typical year, only a small percentage of West Virginia kids are repeating a grade. But last school year, that percentage more than doubled to 4% of all students, largely due to the pandemic. And West Virginia had one of the highest percent increases in students repeating a grade, among 26 states that provided recent data to the Associated Press. 

Administrators and teachers say students are still struggling, and they need more money and staff to provide them with the intensive educational support they need. State lawmakers have proposed bills that could put large sums toward this and other measures to help West Virginia’s youngest students. If passed and fully funded, this could make a huge difference for the state’s children. 

‘It was a complete disaster’

During the last school year, Mercer County, where Bluefield is located, had one of the state’s highest percentages of students repeating a grade — nearly 7%. Even now, more students are struggling than usual, said Kelli Stanley, principal of Princeton Primary School. 

“This year’s third graders were the first year of kindergarten where we had those shortened days. So, they didn’t have as much time for instruction,” Stanley said. “And everybody in Mercer County was wearing a mask. So, how do you teach sounds and things like that with a mask on? Kids that were going to probably struggle were hit the worst.” 

Today, students entering the lobby of Princeton Primary can see colorful seating cushions and drawings of tigers — the school’s mascot — everywhere. In Stanley’s office, framed pictures of famous children’s book protagonists, such as the “Very Hungry Caterpillar,” decorate the wall. The entire building feels homey. 

A colorful sign welcomes visitors to Princeton Primary School. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

But during the pandemic, the closest some Mercer County students came to their schools were their parking lots, where the district had set up Wi-Fi hotspots. Many children didn’t have internet access, especially students in more rural communities. 

Roughly 15 minutes away from Princeton, Tina Bryant teaches kindergarten in Spanishburg, a town of several hundred. Much of the area doesn’t have broadband, and, during the pandemic, many of her students were also being raised by their grandparents – who didn’t understand technology. 

“We were trying to be on Teams for our instructional time,” Bryant said. “If you lost your kids, some of them may try to get back on. Some of them just say, ‘Well, I’m finished for the day.’” 

Older students also struggled to attend remote classes, said former Princeton High School social studies and civics teacher Tim Snead. 

“Because of the internet situation, sometimes they couldn’t log on to the lessons we were trying to teach. It was just very difficult,” Snead said. “Sometimes I had a class of 30 kids, and maybe a third of them would show up online. Either because of the issues with the internet access — or the fact they just didn’t want to.”

This wasn’t just a Mercer County problem: students struggled throughout West Virginia, even if they consistently attended online school. 

“It was a complete disaster,” said Marshall County resident Rebekah Wolfe, of her son attending first grade remotely. “He didn’t know anything, and I know he didn’t know anything because I was trying to teach it to him. I’m not a teacher. I’m not qualified.” 

Wolfe was doing clerical work full-time, and she didn’t understand the new Common Core methods her son’s teachers were using for addition and subtraction. She eventually quit her job because there was no one else to watch her kids as they attended remote classes from home. 

She later advocated for her son to repeat first grade, and he’s doing well in school now.

“It’s not that noticeable when your friends go to second grade and you’re still in first,” Wolfe said. “You get a whole bunch of new friends from kindergarten and they’re still at that friendly, ‘I like everybody’ kind of stage. And with my son, they made him the class helper because he already knew what was expected from the year before.”

Retention v. intensive support 

In school administrator lingo, students are “retained,” rather than “held back,” or made to “repeat a grade.” And although being retained helped Wolfe’s son, teachers and administrators often try to avoid it, especially for older students. 

“If you start retaining in third, fourth, fifth grade, those kids are aware enough of their peers and their surroundings,” said Roane County Superintendent Richard Duncan. “They know that they’ve been retained. They know why they’ve been retained. I think it does affect kids and they go into it knowing, ‘Well I’m not as smart as my friends.’”

A 2017 study led by a researcher from Texas A&M University also found that children who repeat a year of school — even just once, during elementary school — are more likely to drop out during high school. 

To avoid this, many West Virginia schools use a tiered intervention process: the more a child has fallen behind in school, the more intense the support they receive. 

If a child is only struggling with a few key skills, they can receive extra teaching time in small groups tailored to helping them understand those specific topics. Sometimes, one-on-one time with an educator is provided for students who need even more help. This extra instruction can take place during the school day, after school or during the summer. 

As the number of struggling kids has increased, schools have ratcheted up this additional academic support too. But they’re relying on limited funds to provide it. Roane County is using federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for many intervention services, and those expire in 2024. 

Princeton Primary uses Title I funding — federal money given to schools with many children living in poverty — to pay for some intervention services. But there’s still not enough to go around, its principal said. 

“It’s always like ‘We need another interventionist,’” Stanley said. “Because it seems like more kids need that intervention service or that small group instructions. Teachers offer that, but to get extra is what our kids are needing.”

Recently introduced bills would fix some problems, but not all 

A pair of early childhood education bills moving through the Statehouse would help with that — and more. Senate Bill 274 and its companion bill House Bill 2003 would each require schools to administer assessments three times each year for students in kindergarten through third grade. If those assessments determine a student is behind in reading or math, schools would have to provide them with interventions, such as extra one-on-one instruction.

Both bills would require more training for teachers and more resources for additional instruction after the school day and during the summer. Of high interest to many school administrators, including Stanley, is that they would also require every classroom from pre-K through third grade to have an early childhood classroom assistant teacher. 

“Kindergarten has a teacher and an aide, and they’re our babies. We want to take care of them. They need that. But when they get to first grade, it’s one teacher, 20 to 23 kids. And they sometimes still need that extra attention,” Stanley said. “And so, I really was excited to see that that was a possibility. I think that could be a game changer.” 

Both bills have headed to their chamber’s respective finance committees, so it’s not yet clear how much money lawmakers are willing to put toward this initiative. But it’s estimated that fully funding HB 2003 as it is currently written would cost nearly $100 million once it’s fully implemented.  

Even if either of these bills eventually become law, they won’t do much to help the state’s older students, who are still dealing with the long-term effects of pandemic learning. 

Back at the Bluefield High basketball game, multiple students said their motivation decreased steeply during the pandemic, but they were glad to be back watching the basketball team play in person. Sophomore Tyquise Powell, who plays football and runs track, said the year of remote learning was tough.

“For me, waking up and being in my bed, was not for me. Doing work on the computer? I’m better at in-person type learning,” he said. 

Several students talked about how much they’d missed playing sports. One said his grades “went all the way down to here,” as he gestured to the floor, then added that he’d since caught up.

And even though many are still dealing with the lingering effects of COVID’s disruption, the students in the packed gymnasium seemed relieved to return to some semblance of normal. As the Bluefield Beavers beat the Greenbrier Spartans in overtime, they stood and chanted, “I believe that we have won,” over and over again.

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.