Justice changes school re-entry metrics again
CHARLESTON — The color-coded school re-entry map parents and school officials rely on during the COVID-19 pandemic is changing yet again.
Gov. Jim Justice held a rare online Tuesday briefing with reporters from the Capitol to explain the new County Alert System map. He also laid out new metrics for counties to use to determine if they can re-open for in-person learning or close for distance learning.
“The delta between the orange code and the yellow code is just too wide,” Justice said. “We’re going to insert another color into our color-code system.”
The new gold color will include counties with between 10 and 14.9 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people or counties with a positive rate of 5 percent or less. Counties in the orange will be prohibited from holding assemblies or large group activities, face coverings will be required at all times and attendance at athletic and extracurricular activities will be limited to parents or guardians. County schools would also only be able to compete with in-county schools or schools in gold counties.
The metrics for red counties remain unchanged. The metrics for the number of infections per 100,000 people remain unchanged for green and yellow counties, but now green counties will include counties with a 3 percent or less positivity rate, and yellow counties will include counties with a 4 percent positivity rate. Orange county metrics changed to counties with between 15 and 24.9 positive cases per 100,000 people.
“We could sit on the sidelines and let this go and not change and be stubborn and not adapt,” Justice said. “But at the end of the day, what would it truly be? It would be worse, and it would be a bad stubborn move. What do you do? You change and you adapt.”
The Department of Education released an updated color-coded map to show what counties are in the gold. According to the map, Putnam, Fayette, Boone, Logan, and Mingo would move from orange to gold, while Kanawha and Monroe counties will remain orange. Monongalia is the only county in the red.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said the color-coded system started to have a negative effect on coronavirus testing, motivating residents to avoid testing on the idea that this would lower case numbers in their county. Instead, it caused new cases combined with a reduction of test results to skew the metrics in counties toward orange and red. DHHR data shows a reduction in test results over the last three weeks.
“We really want to increase testing, and our testing numbers have started to come down and that’s very worrisome for us,” Marsh said. “In order to make our communities safer and better and improve the public health, we need to really accelerate testing. That was one problem with our system: it actually worked the opposite of what we wanted from a public health standpoint, because it motivated people to test less as opposed to motivated people to test more.”
Marsh said counties can get out of the gold category in two ways: if Infection rates go down or the percent of positive cases go down. Marsh hopes the changes to the metrics will incentivize residents in counties to get tested more and identify more asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
“We want to incentivize the counties to show up and get tested more,” Marsh said. “The more you test, the lower that number starts to go down. By testing more, we’re able to identify people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, which is exactly what we want to do to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Justice said Monday he would meet with state cabinet officials as well as health and education officials that afternoon, a meeting that started at 5 p.m. and was still ongoing into Monday evening, ending at 8:30 p.m.
During Monday’s coronavirus briefing, Justice proposed the idea of adding an additional color to the County Alert System color-coded map developed by the Department of Health and Human Resources between yellow and orange to give counties with increases in coronavirus cases more time to bring their outbreaks under control.
On Aug. 5, Justice called for metrics and a color-coded system for school re-entry. The plan developed by the DHHR and Marsh was released Aug. 14.
In the first version, loosely based on the Harvard Global Health Institute Risk Level Map, counties were labeled green if they had less than seven cases per 100,000, yellow counties were between eight and 15 cases, orange counties were between 16 and 24 cases, and red counties were more than 25 cases.
Schools in orange counties could remain with greater restrictions on social distancing and only practices for sports and extracurricular activities. Schools in red counties had to shut down in-person schooling, go to distance learning, and cancel all sports and extracurricular activities.
By Aug. 17, the metrics changed, with green meaning less than three cases per 100,000, yellow meaning between 3.1 and 9.9 cases and orange meaning between 10 and 24.9 cases. The metrics for red were unchanged. Two days later, Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, praised the state’s metrics and color-coded system and planned to share it with other states.
But by Aug. 21, the County Alert System was changed again. Previously, the metrics were based on a rolling seven-day average of positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Instead, the metric was changed to a seven-day rolling average for counties with populations more than 16,000. For counties with fewer than 16,000 residents, the metric was changed to a 14-day rolling average.
The County Alert System map was first used Aug. 29 to determine which schools could move ahead with high school sports, such as football. Any counties in the orange and red at that time were now allowed to play sports. The map was updated again Sept. 5 to determine what counties could re-open for in-person school, with counties in the orange and red required to remain closed when schools re-opened on Sept. 8.
Counties that went orange after Sept. 8 were allowed to re-open but could only allow practices. However, that rule changed on Friday when Justice announced that any county that went orange as of last Saturday night’s map update had to close for in-person schooling and limit practices to conditioning with no sports and extracurricular activities allowed.
Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools, said the goal is to try to get as many students back into schools for in-person learning while also keeping students, parents, teachers, and school service personnel safe.
“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that remote learning was going to be tough,” Burch said. “This week, 67,000 children were impacted by these metrics. When we started talking with health officials about a way to safely re-open school, I’m all in. I want as many children as in-person as possible as long as it is healthy, as long as it is safe, and as long as we’re following protocols.”