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Justice comments on first day of in-person school

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday the first day of in-person school was going smoothly.

Tuesday marked the first day of in-person public and private school for Pre-K, elementary and middle schools, as well as high schools as long as their county was not red on the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System map.

“We are back to school today for our spring semester,” Justice said. “Many of our superintendents have reported so far today that the first day back to school is going smoothly and they’re really excited to have their children back.”

With active COVID-19 cases trending down from more than 29,000 cases last week to 26,675 cases as of Tuesday, only 17 counties in the state were red due to either higher infection rates or percent of positivity, resulting in closed high schools. Another 29 counties were orange, five counties in the gold and four counties were in the yellow.

Justice signed an executive order last week allowing schools to re-open Tuesday. That executive order was followed by a vote by the West Virginia Department of Education prohibiting county school boards from going to remote learning except for high schools in red counties. County schools must either be open four or five days each week, or they can move to hybrid-blended models that allow for schools to be open at least two days per week.

“Our West Virginia Board of Education has outlined their expectations for all of our counties to return to in-person learning and instruction,” Justice said. “Many families have reached out to the Department of Education. I know this, because they’re calling like crazy to me and everyone else saying we want to go back to school.”

The state Board of Education is having an emergency meeting at noon today to discuss counties that have not complied with their Jan. 13 decision to hold in-person school.

Justice said that face masks are mandated for all students age 9 and older, as well as all teachers and school service personnel. Another 50,000 students are enrolled in virtual learning programs in their counties.

“This, along with the blended learning model, significantly reduces the number of students in our school buildings, allowing them to have even more safety precautions than we already have and increase social distancing,” Justice said.

The decision to take away remote learning as an option for Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools has made some groups unhappy. Both the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers have expressed interest in legal options to block the state Board of Education’s decision on remote learning. The West Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus also called on the state to return local control of re-opening decisions to counties.

“Reopening should be a local decision made by elected county boards of education,” the caucus said in their statement Monday. “Local leaders and health authorities should be consulted and their decisions respected. They have been elected to their positions to make these decisions. The issues facing our schools are complex, directly impacted by the size of the county or region of the state. Roane County is not Berkeley County. Monroe County is not Kanawha County.”

The state also is still working on vaccinations for teachers and school service personnel with a focus on employees age 50 and older. More than 19,000 teachers and school service personnel over the age of 50 have been vaccinated as of last Friday.

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