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Justice: West Virginia schools a ‘doggone safe spot to be’

BRIEFING —Gov. Jim Justice talks about the number of coronavirus cases tied to West Virginia’s schools. (Photo Courtesy/W.Va. Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — Today marks 28 days since county school systems could re-open for in-person school, with state officials praising teachers, school service personnel, and administrators for helping limit the spread of the virus in schools.

“Nobody wants to do anything to endanger our children, but if you look at it fairly and look at it mathematically … really and truly today (school) is one doggone safe spot to be,” said Gov. Jim Justice.

According to the Department of Education, only 0.02 percent of the state’s students and 0.3 percent of teachers and staff have COVID-19 infections since schools re-opened on Sept. 8. Working with the Department of Health and Human Resources for contact tracing, most of the cases came from outside the school versus spread of the virus within the school.

Out of 691 schools in 55 counties, 24 schools in 17 counties have COVID-19 outbreaks, defined as two or more confirmed cases among students and/or staff in the same school setting from separate households during a 14-day period. Outbreaks are reported on the county level to the Department of Education and posted at wvde.us. Justice said 122 positive cases have been found in 39,074 teachers and staff in West Virginia.

“We’re talking a third of 1 percent,” Justice said. “As far as the numbers we’re coming up with as far as spreading at our schools from our staff or our service personnel, it’s very very very minimal.”

The state public school data goes hand-in-hand with data collected by the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, a tracking project by Brown University. Based on the most recent data collection for 1,266 schools across the U.S., the student confirmed infection rate between Sept. 14 and Sept. 27 was 0.149 percent. The staff confirmed infection rate was 0.27 percent.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, and State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad spoke with Brown University professor Emily Oster, the creator of the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.

“What Dr. Oster said, which we have been saying every day, that the risk of spreading in schools is directly related to the amount of disease you have in your community,” Marsh said. “Most people bring the disease from the community into the school, whether its staff or teachers or even students.”

County school systems in West Virginia worked during the summer on plans for opening school for in-person learning, blended models that combine in-person and distance learning, and full distance learning plans. Parents were allowed to opt in for all-virtual learning, with 29 percent of parents choosing this model.

“Counties have been diligent to develop plans that are in line with WVDE and DHHR protocols that will prevent the spread of infection inside the school,” said Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools, in a statement Tuesday. “We knew from the beginning there would be cases in our schools, but the immediate response to mitigate the infection from spreading has been critical to keeping schools safe and open.”

Prior to the start of school re-opening, Justice and state health officials unveiled the County Alert System color-coded map and health metrics to guide county school systems on re-opening decisions. The map and metrics have changed multiple times since it was released at the end of August, expanding to five colors — green, yellow, gold, orange, and red — and using both an infection rate metric based on cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate based on the number of cases and tests.

While county superintendents and school boards have flexibility when it comes to choosing to open schools, go to blended models, or close schools, counties that go into the orange and red categories must close schools and switch to distance learning until their cases decrease or test results increase and they return to the gold category.

While DHHR maintains a version of the County Alert System map that is updated daily, school systems rely on the County Alert System map updated every Saturday at 5 p.m. to make school re-opening decisions for the following week. As of last Saturday, only Doddridge, Harrison, Upshur, and Mingo counties were orange, meaning they could not re-open

Both teachers’ unions have criticized Justice and health and education officials for making changes to the metrics, charging them with watering down the metrics to make a map that allows most of the state’s schools to re-open for in-person learning. A Kanawha County Circuit Court judge will hear arguments next week from the West Virginia Education Association. The union wants the court to halt the use of the current County Alert System map in favor of the metrics the map is based on created by the Harvard Global Health Institute.

“At least for the moment, we know this is fluid and we know we want out schools to be super safe,” Justice said. “We’re trying with all in us to make the school the safest place that we can be for our teachers, our service personnel and our kids.

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

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