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Teachers’ unions: Stability needed in West Virginia school reopening plan

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s two teachers’ unions criticized Gov. Jim Justice for changing the school re-entry guidelines yet again.

The West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers released statements Tuesday afternoon after Justice unveiled a new color to the County Alert System color-coded map, as well as tweaks to the metrics used to determine whether to keep schools open for in-person learning or close for distance learning.

“We are angry that our state leaders continue to manipulate the color-coded map guiding the reopening of school,” said Education Association President Dale Lee. “Employees and parents need to have a system with continuity and stability in order to make plans and facilitate learning.”

“While the ultimate goal is for every student to be taught in-person, the governor should not pursue that goal at the expense of any child or employee’s health and safety,” said AFT-WV President Fred Albert.

Justice and state health officials added gold between the yellow and orange categories Tuesday. According to the metrics, schools in the green and yellow categories can remain open for in-person school, but counties in the orange and red are required to close for in-person school. Schools in the orange are allowed to have limited athletic practices for conditioning, but red counties have to halt all sports and extracurricular activities.

Now with the new category, counties in gold are allowed to remain open for in-person school with greater restrictions on gathering and assemblies, as well as a mandatory mask requirement. Schools in the gold can also play sports either with other schools inside the county or other gold counties.

The state amended its County Alert System map to show which counties would have been in the gold category as of the weekly map update as of last Saturday. According to additional information from the Department of Education, counties that were moved from orange to gold could reopen starting Wednesday at their discretion. Those counties were Boone, Fayette, Logan, Mingo and Putnam.

“We think it is unwise and unnecessary to change course in the middle of the week,” Lee said. “It was deemed too dangerous for in-person school on Saturday and little has changed except the recoding of the map. Those counties in ‘gold’ should not return to class this week and wait to see the status of their county on Saturday evening before making any changes.”

“While we agree that more testing is imperative in gaining a more accurate reflection of the infection rates in our communities, AFT-WV questions the effectiveness of a constantly changing metric for school attendance,” Albert said. “Employees, parents, and students need a system they can trust and easily understand.”

The metrics behind the County Alert System map also changed. Colors are determined based on a seven-day rolling average of positive cases per 100,000 people in counties with populations above 16,000 residents, while counties below 16,000 residents are based on a 14-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 people.

Under the updated metrics, Green counties have three of fewer cases per 100,000 or a 3 percent or less positivity rate, yellow counties have between 3.1. and 9.9 cases or a 4 percent or less positivity rate, gold counties have between 10 and 14.9 cases or a 5 percent or less positivity rate, orange counties have between 15 and 24.9 cases, and red counties have more than 25 cases.

The Department of Health and Human Resources daily updates its color-coded map, but school systems go by a color-coded map updated every Saturday on the Department of Education’s website. Both maps are managed by state health officials, with a committee of health experts that go over the data on Fridays and Saturdays to make sure the numbers that go into the weekly Department of Education map are accurate.

“We continue to be frustrated and disillusioned that the rules keep changing regarding what is safe for our employees and students,” Lee said. “The governor said our banner must be “It has to be Safe.” Yet, there are no guarantees that the changes made to the map today will not have a negative impact on the health and safety of those in our schools. They have no idea whether these changes will put teachers, service professionals or students in harm’s way.”

The next official update of the map is 5 p.m. Saturday. Albert and AFT-WV have advocated for the map to be updated on Fridays to give parents, students and teachers more time to prepare in case a county transitions into the orange or red categories.

“AFT-WV believes that the school metric announcement for each week could be made on Friday afternoon since the data used ends on Thursday night,” Albert said. “This would allow both parents and employees an additional day to plan accordingly for the next instructional week.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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