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West Virginia releases plans to get students back to school next year

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday a plan to get West Virginia’s pre-K and K-12 students back into schools even as the state’s school re-entry map is mostly red and orange due to COVID-19 infections.

During his Wednesday coronavirus briefing — his last of 2020 — Justice said all West Virginia pre-K, elementary, and middle schools will re-open for in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan 19. Until then all schools will be on remote learning starting Monday, Jan. 4, through Friday, Jan. 15. Winter sports will begin Monday, March 1.

High school students will return to in-person school only if their county is not listed as red on Department of Health and Human Resources’ County Alert System map found at coronavirus.wv.gov. The weekly map updated on the Department of Education’s website will be discontinued.

According to the DOE, teachers and staff will use the two weeks prior to Jan. 19 to prepare for the return of in-person learning. Families with students in virtual learning programs can remain in those programs for the remaining school year if they choose to.

“We’re taking that two weeks because we need time to get ready,” Justice said.

As of Wednesday’s DHHR County Alert System map, only Calhoun County was green for its 2.62 percent positivity rate with no counties listed as yellow or gold. Another 13 counties were listed as orange — the next to worst color category. Otherwise, 41 counties were listed as red for high rates of infection or high percent of positivity.

Justice and Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said that community transmission of COVID-19 in elementary and middle schools is far less than high schools.

“Schools are safe,” Justice said. “The transmission rate among students age 15 and above is significantly higher than our kids that are below 15 … our much younger kids are so much safer at our schools. Our teachers and school service personnel, to be perfectly honest, are really safe at our schools.”

“What we found was … if we can follow simple strategies, like wearing masks and staying distanced in classrooms, that in-classroom is much safer than the community,” Marsh said. “The outbreaks we’ve seen in schools are almost all outbreaks from communities.”

Justice and State Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said that West Virginia students are not performing well in distance learning, with one-third of students receiving failing grades in at least one core class during the first semester.

“We tried, but we all know we’re failing in that,” Justice said. “The virtual learning models do not work for most students without consistent, live engagement from a teacher from the student’s own school.”

“Our students need their teachers,” Burch said. “We’ve got to get our children back in school. They need that option.”

State officials are also concerned about students falling through the cracks. According to DHHR, the number of referrals to the Child Protective Services has dropped by between 50 percent and 54 percent during the pandemic.

“Bad things are happening to kids … and we’re not even getting it reported now,” Justice said. “We’ve got a bunch of kids out there really suffering.”

Justice said the state will also now vaccinate all teachers, staff, and school service personnel age 50 and older over the next two to three weeks as part of phase 1 of the state’s vaccination plan. Teachers and staff under the age of 50 will receive vaccinations once the older teachers and staff receive their shots. The Department of Education will distribute vaccine information as it becomes available.

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

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