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Justice responds to school concerns

CHARLESTON — Even as schools await the update of the County Alert System color-coded map this weekend to determine whether they can re-open on Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice addressed issues and concerns Friday.

“We’ll be putting up the color codes and everything,” Justice said. “From that, I am very, very hopeful that a great percentage of our state will be back in school.”

According to Friday’s County Alert System map updated by the Department of Health and Human Resources, six southern West Virginia counties are orange, meaning they have 10 to 24.9 case of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. Those counties are Kanawha, Putnam, Wayne, Mingo, Logan, and Mercer.

If those counties remain orange by 9 p.m. Saturday, the counties will not be allowed to re-open for in-person schooling or participate in fall sports and extracurricular activities, though controlled practices can continue. The same goes for the two red counties, except that those counties will also have to halt practices as well. Monongalia County joined Monroe County on Friday in the red, driven by increases in coronavirus cases among West Virginia University students.

“We’re about ready to go to school, but unfortunately we’ll have some we just can’t turn loose right yet, which is in the best interest of the school,” Justice said. “We don’t want to start right out with absolute failure. We don’t want to put ourselves in the situation that if we’re in the orange or red right out of the get-go we rush out and doom ourselves.”

According to WVU, there are 713 students in 14-day quarantine because they had direct contact with someone who tested positive as of Friday. Another 263 students are in isolation due to likely testing positive for COVID-19. According to the Dominion Post, county school officials, the Monongalia County Commission, WVU, the City of Morgantown, and Monongalia County Health Department, have lobbied the state to remove WVU’s positive test numbers from Monongalia County’s overall numbers.

Since Monongalia County went red, all sports and extracurricular activities for the weekend have been canceled. Morgantown High School was supposed to host Bridgeport High School on Friday night in high school football, while University High School was supposed to play at Parkersburg South High School. Those games have been canceled, with Parkersburg South playing Cabell Midland High School instead.

Justice said it is up to the county school systems whether they decided to re-open for in-person school, or whether they choose to go to a blend of in-person and virtual learning or go completely virtual unless they are in the red category. But counties that elect to go all-virtual while being in the green or yellow categories will also not be allowed to have sports or extracurricular activities. According to the Department of Education, 71 percent of parents would prefer to have their children in the school building, while 29 percent have opted into virtual learning.

“If a county elects to go 100-percent remote, they can do just that,” Justice said. “If they remove the choice from the parents … that’s up to them. We will abide and support the locals. But at the end of the day if they do that … if they’re doing that for safety, then we absolutely can’t have kids on the football fields or kids playing volleyball if the school is not open. There’s no way you can have both.”

Helping guide data decisions for the Saturday map updates is a panel of health officials with the Department of Health and Human Resources. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said the panel will work to make sure the testing and epidemiology data used for the Saturday evening updates will be as accurate as possible so that county school officials are not left in the dark.

“What we’re really doing … is looking first of all from our DHHR experts and our epidemiologists to make sure that we have verified all of the data and make sure we have separated it effectively congregant or community spread, making sure we don’t have any duplicates in the data, and that we’ve identified the county of origin for people who have had the positive results,” Marsh said.

“We have gathered and gathered and gathered information,” Justice said. “Our school opening panel will be reviewing information, assessing information … they will scrub numbers.”

Marsh also said they would use the data to look at the entire state as a whole and determine specific hotspots and outbreaks and be able to address community spread in a better way. The West Virginia National Guard is developing quick reaction units to provide assistance at a moment’s notice.

“We’ve got to continue to stay the course, protect ourselves, protect our families, protect our elderly,” Justice said.

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