CHARLESTON — On Jan. 19, all elementary and middle school students can return to school five days a week regardless of the color code and high school students may return to classrooms in counties in the orange category, but not in red.
Gov. Jim Justice made the announcement during his Wednesday pandemic briefing, also saying the start of winter sports and extracurricular activities has been delayed until March 1.
“We have got to get our kids back in school,” he said, adding that students are safer in schools because COVID transmission rates are extremely low among students, especially those under 15 years old.
Justice said virtual learning has been tried and does not work.
“In the first semester, a third of students are receiving failing grades in at least one core class,” he said. “The virtual learning model does not work for most students without consistent live” monitoring from their school.
After consulting with all medical and education experts, Justice said the consensus is that students must be back in classrooms, and they are safe there as long as strict protocol is followed.
“The kids are suffering for not being in school,” he said, referring not only to education but also some dangers kids can face being at home all the time.
Justice also said he hates it that winter sports is delayed again from the initial Jan. 11 date but it has to be done because of the spread of the virus, especially among sports teams and the fact indoor activities must be limited.
As of Wednesday, 54 of 55 counties in the state were in either the red or orange categories because of COVID spread. Before Justice’s announcement, no students in those 54 counties would be recommended to return to the classrooms if the state Department of Education (WVDE) reflected that same map on Saturday.
However, that map on the WVDE website will no longer be published and, instead, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) County Alert System Map will guide high school in-person instruction.
“Our map has served us well up to here,” Justice said. “If it has erred, it has erred on the side of safety.”
But far more is known now about the virus, he said, adding that sports is “much different than going to school” and with traveling, contact and playing together another element of spread is added which is why those activities must be delayed.
State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said students in grades pre-K through 8 will return to in-person learning five days each week. Students in grades 9 through 12 will also return to in-person instruction five days each week as long as their county is not red.
Special allowances will be given for four-day learning models in counties whose teachers are providing direct virtual learning instruction to their own students.
From Jan. 4 through Jan. 15, counties will move to remote learning, and educators will use this two-week period to prepare for the return to in-person instruction. Families have the option to keep their children in virtual learning regardless of changes to in-person instruction.
“The research shows it is safe to restore the in-person learning model for parents that chose this option for the children,” Burch said. “We also know students are suffering because of the lack of in-person instruction. CPS (Child Protective Services) referrals have decreased, student social and emotional well-being has suffered, and one-third of our students have received failing grades in at least one core subject area. We simply have to get our students back in school, in-person … There is no substitute for engaging students in person.”
When key mitigation strategies are followed, it is safe for them to be in school, he added, and much more is now known about the virus than when the pandemic began.
Burch said Justice understands that the school safety data is “undeniable,” referring to studies in the nation as well as in other countries.
“I fully support this decision because we know that heightened transmission rates experienced in communities are not reflected within the schools because of the mitigation in place,” he said. “We are going to double down on mitigation strategies.”
Another hill to climb will be to catch students up with the education that has been missed, he said, closing a widening gap that will not be easy to fix.
“This (returning to school) is the first step in mitigating the continuation of that widening gap,” he said. “it’s not going to be a quick fix to catch everybody up.”
Closing the achievement gap will take time and it’s also important to bring back that “one caring adult” to assist them because some students may not have that, he added.
Burch said he has confidence in educators to accomplish the task, and in-person engagement is necessary to do this.
Justice also announced that all teachers and staff age 50 years old and older in schools will receive the vaccination in the next two to three weeks. After that, all other teachers and personnel will be vaccinated to be ready for students.
Another target population for the vaccine, he said, is residents 80 years old and older and the process to offer that will start immediately.
Local health departments will individually announce availability and locations for vaccinations, he said.
Justice has directed the West Virginia National Guard to plan vaccination clinics at locations throughout the state, including at National Guard Armories. These clinics have not yet been scheduled. When they are scheduled, they will be announced.
Residents are also urged not to show up at local health departments or National Guard armories for vaccination unless a vaccination clinic for those age 80 and older is scheduled and he asked resident to “not overwhelm pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, or the COVID-19 hotline by calling repeatedly.”
“It’s about age, age, age,” he said of the vulnerable population. “We believe the faster we can get shots in the arms of people … the more lives we are going to save. We have got to do it.”
But Justice cautioned that only a limited number of vaccines are available at any given time.
“These events will have to be on a first come-first service bases,” he said, but more vaccines will come in. “We will get more and more and come back and keep coming back … I am going to keep my foot on the gas.”
Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines continue to be shipped, with each requiring two doses. Pfizer’s doses are three weeks apart and Moderna’s four weeks.
State COVID-19 Czar Dr. Clay Marsh said those who took the first rounds of the Pfizer vaccine earlier this month will be due for a second shot next week.
“Each person must get the second vaccination to get optimal protection,” he said of both vaccines which are about 95 percent effective.
State National Guard Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer said vaccine distribution continues and will available for teachers and school staff over 50 years old “over the next several days into next week.”
Hoyer also said he and Justice are both upset about a possible decrease in vaccine allocation by the CDC, especially considering the fact West Virginia is doing better than any other state in the percent of vaccines administered.
“If we can get the shots out and get them in arms we need more doses,” he said.
As of Wednesday, the state had received 86,800 total Pfizer and Moderna doses with 37,862 already administered.
Hoyer also said that a timetable will be set on when essential personnel like retail workers will get vaccinated, and those will start with employees 50 years old and older.
“We are working with the Joint Interagency Task Force,” he said, and involving associations and boards that will reach out through employers.
Administering the vaccines will involved health departments, clinics, primary care physicians and others, he added.
On a lighter not during his briefing, Justice commented on a cookie sale recently at Rock City Cake Company in Charleston that included “Big Jim says…” cookies with some of his verbiage on top, including “Wear the egg-suckin’ mask,” “Any way, shape, form or fashion,” “For cryin’ out loud,” “If you can’t get it done in 24 hours a day you are going to have to work nights,” “It’s clear as mud” and “This is a bunch of horse snot.”
“If you can’t make fun of yourself in this world I feel sorry for you,” he said. “A lot of my sayings are pretty bizarre.”
Justice said he thinks the cookies are “hilarious.”
“I am tickled to death to support our small businesses all I can,” he said of brisk cookie sales. “I love people jabbing at me and I love to tease myself so I can surely take it.”