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Justice stands by state BOE decision

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that the West Virginia Board of Education was acting in the best interests of students by prohibiting counties from switching to remote learning when COVID-19 cases soar.

Speaking Friday afternoon during his coronavirus briefing at the State Capitol Building, Justice said it was important to get students back to some form of in-person learning, whether it was a full five-day experience or the hybrid-blended model where students only go on certain days.

“We can’t just go remote,” Justice said. “If that’s not good enough, then you’re on your own … the state Board of Education and Superintendent (Clayton) Burch make that call. All I can do is just say from the Governor’s standpoint, the governor’s executive order is just go to school.”

The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to require county Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools to open for either four or five days a week. Instead of going to remote learning, those schools would only be able to go to a hybrid-blended model that allows for at least two in-person days of instruction.

High schools would only close if their county is red on the Department of Health and Human Resources’ County Alert System map. Counties would be able to also close specific schools and even classrooms to control COVID-19 spread. Students in a county’s virtual learning program would be unaffected.

Justice signed an executive order Monday that public and private elementary and middle/junior high schools can re-open for in-person instruction and extracurricular activities starting Tuesday, Jan. 19, regardless of their county’s color on the County Alert System map, with public and private high schools only allowed to re-open in-person as long as they are not red.

Prior to Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting, several county school boards voted to either to full-remote or go to a blended-hybrid model as the state works to vaccinated teachers and school service personnel, particularly over the age of 50. Justice said it was up to the Department of Education to work with those county boards to reverse those decisions.

“I don’t really think it’s my call as far as pressuring them to go back,” Justice said. “That’s the Department of Ed’s call and the Board of Education. They made their ruling and everything. I think without question they should be back in school.”

According to state vaccination officials, more than 19,000 teachers and school service personnel over the age of 50 have been vaccinated over the last two weeks — 79 percent of the nearly 24,000 teachers and staff age 50 and older. But the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two shots spread out 21 days and 28 days respectively. While many teachers will have the first shots of those vaccines by next Tuesday, they won’t receive the second shot until the end of the month and into February.

Both major teachers’ unions have pushed back, calling the state Board of Education’s decision dangerous. The West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers announced Thursday its intent to file an injunction to block the board from enforcing that decision. The injunction is aimed at the board, the Department of Education, and several county boards of education who have or are implementing the state board’s directive.

Late Thursday, the West Virginia Education Association issued a statement condemning state education leaders for taking away local control of school re-opening decisions. WVEA President Dale Lee said his union is also considering it legal options.

“Safely re-opening schools during a pandemic requires the county and school administrators and our local organizations to work together,” Lee said. “We are standing together for our students, our families and our communities. The state board and governor cannot convince us that it will be safe in all schools or areas.”

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said the epidemiology data from last year when school was in session said state health officials saw very little secondary transmission between people in classrooms except in classrooms where people didn’t properly wear masks.

“There were outbreaks at schools, but they were in people who acquired COVID in the community and had been in meetings with each other or lunches or sports teams without masks and passed it back and forth outside of the classroom,” Marsh said.

According to the Brown University School Response Dashboard, the most recent data from Nov. 30 to Dec. 13 found that out of 4.4 million students tracked by the dashboard who were in in-person classes, the student infection rate was 0.35 percent for a daily case rare of 25 infections per 100,000 students. Out of 1.2 million education staff, the infection rate was 0.84 percent, or 60 infections per 100,000 staff.

“We do believe that the school room — if all the precautions are taken with masks, distancing, and contact tracing just like in a healthcare setting in a hospital – these places are actually safer as far as spread of COVID-19 than in people’s homes and communities,” Marsh said.

“There is no possible way that anybody can make any single place absolutely completely perfectly totally safe,” Justice said. “All the health experts and all the scientific research says that the transmission possibilities from eighth grade down is next to nothing. You are far more at risk, and so are our children, if they stop at a Go-Mart or a Walmart and go out outside to each other’s houses or whatever than they are in school.”

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