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“We’re going to move forward together.”

That’s what Greenbrier County Superintendent Jeff Bryant told The Register-Herald one week before children returned to school.

For returning students and faculty, the new school year carries with it the hope of a return to pre-Covid normalcy. However, to the youngest Greenbrier County students, the “new normal” that awaits them in the coming school year will simply be just “normal.”

“We’re picking up on a really positive vibe and a positive attitude,” Bryant said. “I think the employees and the community realize that Covid will still continue to be something we deal with. But I think we’ve seen the worst, and we’ve seen it together. And now we’re going to move forward together.”

Bryant then added that although there may be some “glitches” along the way, “We’re not going back to the way it was” during the height of the pandemic.

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While the current Covid numbers would seemingly add credibility to Bryant’s confidence, as of the time of writing, Greenbrier County falls in line with the state average of both infection rate and positivity percentage.

“Covid is not over by any means,” Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia (AFT-WV), told The Register-Herald during a recent interview. “Just today (Aug. 26), there was a school closed in Boone County because of a Covid outbreak. So we’re still battling that.”

In Greenbrier County, however, at least for now, the “battle” appears to be well-mitigated.

“We’re back to operating as we did before the pandemic,” Bryant said. “Will there be a sign of caution? Well, we’ll always be monitoring things, but we’re going to treat Covid moving forward like the flu. If there are a high percentage of outbreaks, we’ll deal with that. But we’re back to doing school for students and employees just like we did before Covid.”

Bryant added that county schools will continue to follow the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, as for universal mask-mandating, Bryant said, “We do not see that in our future plans at all.”

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Another “battle” being waged in West Virginia is the frightening teacher shortage impacting schools across the state. On Aug. 19, Register-Herald correspondent Autumn Shelton reported that experts predict “close to 1,500 statewide teaching positions will be vacant during the 2022/2023 school year.”

However, much as with Covid, Bryant remains optimistic, saying, “We’re blessed. As of right now, all of our high school and middle school positions are filled.” Bryant added that the county’s two elementary-teacher vacancies will be filled with retired teachers.

While Greenbrier County may only have two vacancies, elementary schools are seemingly the hardest hit by the statewide teacher shortage. As reported by Shelton, of the 15 teaching positions currently open in Summers County, the majority come from within elementary classrooms.

“This is another issue that we have right now – going on in West Virginia and in our nation,” Albert noted. “This teacher shortage is not made up. It’s very, very real.”

As bordering counties struggle to fill vacancies, it would seem that Greenbrier is trending in the opposite direction.

“Our colleagues in the surrounding counties – everyone is working hard to try and fill the gaps, and I’ve heard from some that they’re really struggling to find people,” Bryant noted. “And we haven’t seen the hard numbers yet, but we’ve seen trends in our enrollment increasing. That’s actually why we have to fill those two new positions on the elementary side.

“We’re very thankful and very grateful that we have people who want to work and teach in Greenbrier County,” Bryant added. “It could be different in another year, but right now, we are so fortunate to be where we’re at.”

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Perhaps the furriest aspect of “the new normal” awaiting Greenbrier County students this year is the addition of a therapy dog through the Communities In Schools’ “Friends With Paws” program.

“We have Marshal coming,” Bryant said. “We saw pictures of him, and how could you not fall in love with that dog?”

At a press conference in mid-August, first lady Cathy Justice announced that Marshal, a cream-colored labradoodle, is scheduled to become the newest “faculty member” at Greenbrier East High School (GEHS), saying, “It’s a wonderful school that will benefit from this dog so much. The handlers who will be caring for the dog are in special education. The entire school will benefit from this.”

The primary handler responsible for Marshal will be special education teacher Jonathan Madara, with Emily Haas – also a special education teacher – as well as GEHS Head Principal Ben Routson serving as secondary handlers.

“And then I am like the third secondary handler,” Bryant added with a laugh. “Marshal will be coming home with me some days.”

Labradoodles shed very little hair – if any at all – and the breed was chosen because of its hypoallergenic nature. Marshal is currently being trained at Universal Canine’s facility in Westfield, Indiana, and is scheduled to arrive in Greenbrier County this December.

In addition to being West Virginia’s first partner-county of Communities In Schools, it was announced this past February that both Greenbrier County high schools will be serving as pilot schools for the GameChanger substance-misuse prevention program. In association with the Hazelden-Betty Ford Foundation, GameChanger works with schools to implement and maintain peer-leadership programs for students.

Joe Boczek, GameChanger’s executive director, told The Register-Herald, “I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to both GameChanger’s ‘Head Coach’ Gov. Jim Justice and Jeff Bryant for their vision and leadership in bringing the program to Greenbrier County Schools.

“We feel absolutely blessed with the progress GameChanger has made in just three years,” Boczek added. “We’re in 12 pilot schools this fall and on schedule to be in all 681 schools in West Virginia by 2027.”

“We’re excited to be working with GameChanger,” Bryant noted. “No community is immune to it (the substance-misuse epidemic). As we get people on-board and trained, we’re going to save some lives and help people get their lives turned around.

“I’m eternally grateful to Joe (Boczek) and everyone with GameChanger for selecting Greenbrier County,” Bryant added.

In summary, Bryant said, “We’re just really optimistic and excited to get this year going. Right now, things really seem to be rolling very well for us. We just feel so blessed.”

Greenbrier Schools Taking a Shot at Pre-COVID Normalcy