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Order allows colleges, schools to reopen

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order Friday paving the way for colleges and universities to institute reopening plans and officially setting Sept. 8 as the start of K-12 education, even as teenagers and college students lead the spike in coronavirus cases.

Public and private K-12 schools, colleges and universities were shut down by Justice’s March 23 executive order closing all non-essential operations and requiring residents to stay at home except for activities deemed essential. Exemptions for schools and higher education included offering distance learning, research and food distribution to students.

“This order has to be signed from the standpoint that we’re operating under an order that really was a closure order,” Justice said. “I’ve got to issue a new order and everything.”

Justice held a virtual meeting Wednesday with the state’s 27 college and university presidents to discuss reopening plans. According to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, 11 public four-year schools, eight private colleges and universities and nine two-year community and technical colleges have released return-to-campus plans. Justice said he was confident in the plans by HEPC and the higher education institutions.

“After a lot of dialogue with all the colleges and universities, I am totally convinced that these people are completely on their game and they’re doing anything and everything they can possibly do to ensure the safety of the staff, the safety of all of our teaching community, and absolutely the safety of our communities, and first and foremost, the safety of our kids,” Justice said.

Justice has called for all out-of-state students to be tested for COVID-19 when they return on campus, as well as the wearing of face masks and coverings whenever possible. Justice also pledged to offer any support public and private colleges need. Sarah Tucker, the chancellor of the HEPC, said she was proud of the work the state higher education community has put into its plans for the fall semester.

“We know students are anxious to return, but we also know they and their loved ones are rightfully concerned about their well-being – and so are we,” Tucker said. “I am incredibly proud of the work our colleges and universities have done, and the strong measures they have put in place, to ensure our students can continue their education while being protected.”

Justice’s executive order also officially sets the start date for K-12 schools for Sept. 8. The boards of education in the 55 counties are working on their reopening plans, which are due to the state Department of Education on Aug. 14. Justice said, depending on the number of coronavirus cases in the state by then, the Sept. 8 start date could be pushed back further.

“Don’t misconstrue that this order is saying we’re going to do this or going to do that,” Justice said. “We’re still watching everything that comes from the federal government, that comes through our numbers, that comes from our health experts, that comes through every aspect to really see where we stand and what’s going to happen with our schools, our universities, our colleges, and everything.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, there were 1,604 active cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia as of Friday afternoon. Active cases among residents ages 10-29 account for one-third of call active cases in the state.

Justice announced Thursday an extension of his 10-day closure of bars that don’t serve food in Monongalia County, home of West Virginia University, for an additional 10 days to Aug. 3. Active cases in Monongalia County have decreased from 395 on Monday to 231 as of Friday. But Kanawha County saw its active cases increase during that same time from 171 to 253, a 48-percent increase in five days.

Justice said he was considering a similar closure of bars in Kanawha County to slow the spread. Kanawha County now has the highest number of active cases in the state.

“We may have to look at the bar situation in Kanawha County as we move forward,” Justice said. “I’m hoping and praying that these numbers don’t continue to rise.”

Despite West Virginia’s high numbers, the state’s Rt value used to measure how fast the virus is spreading was decreasing. The Rt number as of Friday was 1.03 from a high of 1.26, which was nearly the worst Rt value in the nation.

“Our Rt value is down again today, which is suggesting that we are making dents in the spread of COVID-19 with our mitigation strategies, with masks, and physical distancing,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar. “Ultimately, we know that our work is not done, that we need to be very much increasing in our vigilance and our commitment to do the things to protect our state.”

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