More concerns raised over West Virginia school re-entry metrics

Gov. Jim Justice answers questions about a possible WVEA lawsuit over his school re-entry plan. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — More legal pressure is being brought to bear on West Virginia over the recent updates to the color-coded map and metrics that determine if schools can open for in-person learning, with one teachers union calling the map an “illusion.”

Gov. Jim Justice responded Wednesday to a legal threat issued by the West Virginia Education Association. One of two unions representing teachers in West Virginia, the WVEA issued a press released Tuesday calling for an injunction of the County Alert System map and metrics after continued changes have results in most of the state being allowed to re-open for in-person school.

Justice said he could respect differences of opinion with the WVEA and others who have issues with the updated map metrics, though he hoped that the union was not taking a stand against the map for political reasons. The WVEA, the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association have endorsed Justice’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango.

“I appreciate and respect people’s legitimate concern, but I don’t have any patience whatsoever with their political motives,” Justice said. “If that is what this is, then I have no patience with that whatsoever. From the standpoint of respect for people’s concerns, we all ought to be very respectful.”

Dale Lee, president of the WVEA, said the County Alert System map and metrics as they currently stand put students, teachers, and school service personnel at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

“Our members have watched the constant manipulation of the map,” Lee said. “As each rendition failed to provide the desired results sought by our state leaders, additional changes were made. The map manipulation has gone on long enough. Citizens and educators have lost confidence and trust that the changes made to the map are in the interest of safety and public health.”

The most recent changes to the County Alert System map and metrics are the addition of a gold category and using both the incidence rate of cases per 100,000 people or the percent of positive — whichever rate is better — to determine what color a county is and whether it can re-open for in-person learning.

Health officials with the Department of Health and Human Resources update a daily map at coronavirus.wv.gov and a weekly map at wvde.us that county school systems base their school opening decisions on. Counties are color-coded based on the incidence rate — the number of cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average of cases in counties with a population of 16,000 or more or a 14-day average based on counties with a population of less than 16,000 — or the percent of positive cases based on the same seven-day and 14-day rolling averages depending on county population.

Green counties have three cases or less per 100,000 people or less than a 3-percent positivity rate. Yellow counties have between 3.1 and 9.9 cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate between 3 percent and 3.9 percent. Gold counties have between 10 and 14.9 cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate between 4 percent and 4.9 percent. Counties in the green, yellow, and gold counties can open for in-person learning, but social distancing and mask requirements increase as the colors change.

Orange and Red counties are required to close for in-person learning, with orange counties required to limit extracurricular activities to conditioning while red counties must halt all extracurricular activities and sports. Orange counties have between 15 and 24.9 cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate between 5 percent and 7.9 percent. Red counties have more than 25 cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate greater than 8 percent.

The original County Alert System map and metrics were unveiled in August and based on a map developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute. The map was adapted to account for West Virginia’s rural population. It has since been changed multiple times to the point that there are no red counties and only three orange counties, even though active COVID-19 cases in counties previously red — such as Kanawha and Monongalia counties — are still increasing. Most of the state is green.

“The latest changes to the map simply go too far and the illusion of a ‘green map’ does not mean it is safe to return to in-person learning in many of our counties,” Lee said. “We know how important it is for students to be back in classrooms working with their teachers. No one wants in-person education more than our members, but they no longer feel safety is the top priority of our state government’s leadership. We have educators all over the state who have lost confidence in the governor and his statements regarding his desire to keep them safe.”

Lee said attorneys for the WVEA were working on the injunction against the state and would file it in Kanawha County Circuit County soon. The WVEA also called for an independent group outside of DHHR to develop school re-entry metrics more closely aligned with the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Justice said he couldn’t comment on the potential lawsuit itself, but he said the changes made to the school re-entry metrics — including requiring schools to close when they go to the orange and using the percent of positivity to encourage people to get tested for COVID-19 — have made schools safer.

“We are the envy of the nation,” Justice said. “We adjust and we pivot … and we test, the likelihood of us being able to go back to school rises. The likelihood of us testing more rises. The likelihood of us finding spreaders rises. The likelihood of our great health experts being able to stop this killer rises. At the end of the day, if there is lawsuits, there’s lawsuits.”

The WVEA lawsuit, if filed, will become the fourth lawsuit filed in state court regarding either Justices executive orders or the school re-entry plan. WV MetroNews reported that a quarterback at George Washington High School filed an injunction this week. A Kanawha County judge rejected an attempt to block the executive order and re-entry plan by another Charleston parent last week.

Justice is also facing three federal lawsuits over his executive orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

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


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