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West Virginia unveils metrics for new COVID color-coded school re-entry system

State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch and Executive Director Bernie Dolan of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission explain how the new color-code system for closing schools and canceling extracurricular activities for COVID-19 outbreaks works. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice and officials with the departments of Health and Human Resources and Education unveiled Friday the metrics behind a new color-coded system to determine if schools can reopen.

Justice, speaking Friday during his coronavirus briefing at the Capitol, said the state’s new color-coded map and system will determine what schools can reopen on Sept. 8 or have to go to a combination of in-person or virtual learning or completely shut down due to coronavirus increases.

“We’ve been working on this night and day for a long long time,” Justice said. “There’s no state that we know of that has a rating system that is similar to what we’re going to propose to do.”

The color-coded system, consisting of green, yellow, orange and red, will be based on a seven-day cumulative rolling average number of new cases per 100,000 people. Each county will receive a green, yellow, orange and red color code that will change daily.

Counties with between zero and seven positive cases per 100,000 people are considered green, eight to 15 cases per 100,000 people is yellow, 16 to 24 cases per 100,000 is orange, and 25 cases or more per 100,000 people is red. If any county falls within the red category, they would go to 100-percent virtual learning. Christian or private schools in a county would also have to close if the county goes red.

“The biggest thing you have to do is to try to stay green,” Justice said. “That’s where we want everybody, but if we can everybody in green and yellow, that’s absolutely good. That’s exactly what we want to do.”

A map showing the color coding for each county is still being developed by DHHR. The seven-day rolling average numbers will be updated every Saturday night at 9 p.m. for county school systems to look at and determine if a county needs to switch to hybrid learning or all-virtual learning.

Justice said that any county that falls within the orange or red category prior to Sept. 8 will not be allowed to re-open until cases come down and the county becomes a yellow or green county. As of Friday, Justice said Mingo and Grant counties would be orange and Logan County, which has already seen a 22-percent increase in active COVID-19 cases, would be red. Active cases in Logan County jumped from 118 active cases Aug. 3 to 194 active cases Monday to 236 active cases as of Friday.

“You will not open until you get to yellow or green,” Justice said. “We don’t want to set you up for automatic failure. We think if you’re in the orange, you’ve got to get yourself out of the orange in order to be able to have extracurricular activities or to open the school safely.”

The color-code system will also determine if schools are allowed to have extracurricular activities, such as fall sports. Any county in the orange category the Saturday before the start of the new school week will have to halt all extracurricular activities except for practices and controlled events at public and private schools until the county returns to yellow or green.

Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, said summer athletics practices have shown that sports can safely return. He hopes the color-coded system will be an incentive for communities to work harder to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Our coaches and administrators have shown that they can handle and they can follow the guidelines,” Dolan said. “We think we’ve done it very well and safely. Our color code works hand-in-hand with the schools’ color code. Extracurricular activities are just that: extra. We think this system will allow communities to get behind the initiative to move the color closer to green and finally get to green.”

Justice and state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch announced Aug. 5 that the new color-coded system was being developed. The system was developed by DHHR and Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar.

“We are very committed to making sure we are allowing our students and our teachers to come back to school safely,” Marsh said. “We know the absence of school and structure for some children results in hunger, results in the lack of structure, results in more childhood traumas, depression, and isolation. At the same time, we also know in the time of COVID this is a very unusual, once in a lifetime situation. As we have come up with these metrics…we are very much focused on making sure we can get everyone back into class safely.”

All 55 county school systems had until Friday to submit their school reopening plans to the Department of Education. While red means all schools would have to go virtual, state officials are leaving the decision making to local school systems on when to switch between in-person, hybrid, or virtual learning.

“It was important for us to have those plans done in a very thoughtful manner,” Burch said. “They put those plans together specifically for their communities, both for options for parents and with what resources they had. We’re going to see blended, we’re going to see in-person five-day, and we’re going to see virtual. That was the goal from day one to make sure parents had options. Now we’re targeting how those counties can prepare for Sept. 8.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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