Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement Friday that he wanted all school children in grades K-8 back in classrooms five days a week did not come as a surprise. In addition to the governor’s relentless advocacy of opening schools, the dramatic slide of pandemic statistics over the past several weeks has been signaling an opening.
“We’ve been anticipating this announcement for several weeks, knowing that vaccines (are increasing) and the number of cases have been on the decline,” said David Price, superintendent of schools for Raleigh County.
Raleigh County’s Board of Education meets Tuesday and, according to Price, will likely vote at the meeting on whether or not to return to five days a week.
The board may well take its lead from the state board of education, which meets earlier in the day on Tuesday to address the governor’s announcement.
Wyoming County Board of Education members will vote during their meeting Monday whether to return students to five days a week.
Initially that vote was scheduled for March 18 in order to allow time for employees to be vaccinated.
But that happened much quicker than anticipated, said Deirdre Cline, county schools superintendent. As of Friday, 99.2 percent of all employees who wanted to be vaccinated had received both doses.
That total represents 73.4 percent of all county school system employees, she said.
Miller Hall, a Beckley native who serves as president of the West Virginia Board of Education, said in an email on Friday that he would reserve comment on the governor’s announcement ahead of the Tuesday meeting.
“It would be premature to comment at this point,” Hall wrote.
Justice has been advocating for a return to school for a while, now.
In late December, Justice announced that students would be able to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 19. That came at the height of the winter holiday transmission of Covid-19. January turned out to be the deadliest month since the pandemic first showed itself in the state in March of last year, while December recorded the second most deaths.
On Jan. 11, eager to get school children back in front of a teacher, Justice said at a pandemic press briefing he was considering changing the color coding of the state map that dictated what schools could and could not do.
In West Virginia, the state board and local boards dictate attendance protocols.
The plan the governor introduced in that mid-January briefing would reopen schools five days a week. High schools would resort to distance learning only if the map showed a county in red, the highest virus level.
A handful of county school boards had already planned to take a pass on the governor’s plan, while the state board, two days after the governor’s anouncement, voted to direct schools to reopen but left schools the option to use blended models that required two days of in-person instruction each week, not the five days the governor was calling for.
In the past month, statistics associated with the pandemic have fallen dramatically in the state and around the country.
When Justice made his mid-January pronoucement about opening schools, the Department of Health and Human Resources had reported only hours earlier that there were 29,257 active Covid cases in the state – a number that would serve as the high point of the pandemic. The positive test rate was near double digits at 9.53 percent.
Now, there are 9,136 active cases of the highly infectious disease in the state and the daily positive test rate dropped to 2.96 percent on Saturday, the first time since Oct. 25 it has fallen below 3 percent.
Wyoming County has been using a 4-1 model, students spending four days in the classroom with remote learning at home each Wednesday.
Cline will recommend the school district return to what the governor is asking for.
If the board approves Cline’s recommendation, students will return to five days next week, spending their first Wednesday in the classroom since March 16, 2020, when the governor closed schools to slow the pandemic’s spread.
Cline said board members had received feedback from teachers and parents, with both groups indicating they want the children back in school five days a week.
“We’ve had so few cases of Covid in our schools,” Cline said. “Our county has been green all week. We feel like our schools are doing a phenomenal job with the safety guidelines – wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing. Our people and parents want the children back full time. It’s time to move.”
Price said Raleigh County woud be ready to adjust to a new schedule.
“If there are any other directives or changes that come our way, we’ll adjust, as necessary, but we’re excited to be able to get back to normal, and it’s something we’ve all been waiting on.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Price said, adding that he has no more data on what to expect. “I heard the governor’s announcement today, and that’s what I’m basing everything on.”
He said students will continue to wear masks, wash their hands and practice other guidelines, if they return five days per week.
“We’ve been practicing these protocols with half of our students in school every day, and they know the procedures,” he said. “Things won’t change, but there will be a few more students there, as we do (the guidelines).
“They understand the protocols. They understand the safety measures. They’ve been well-trained, and they know what to do at school.”
Raleigh County Education Association Co-President John Quesenberry, whose group represents district teachers, said the main concern is that students, teachers and staff are safe.
“RCEA continues to have the same consistent message we have had throughout the pandemic – we want our students in class in person, but we want to make sure it is done safely for students, employees, and families,” he said. “Safe and adequate social distancing is the greatest concern and challenge.
“Our county school system and health department are doing a good job trying to get vaccines in the arms of employees, which is very helpful.
“RCEA is continuing to collaborate with our county school leaders and with WVEA to make sure students’ educational needs and personal safety are balanced as much as is possible,” he added.