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Impossible to please everyone

For two weeks straight, Gov. Jim Justice lambasted West Virginia media outlets for not reporting more positive stories about the state’s vaccine distribution.

So far, I have not seen a quota for how many stories one must write in order to not earn the Governor’s wrath.

I’m the primary reporter for this paper who covers Justice’s three-times-a-week COVID-19 briefings. I’m reasonably sure that most stories I’ve written about West Virginia’s vaccination efforts have been positive, though even then that’s not my goal. My job is to tell you what is going on; it’s your job to determine whether what I’m telling you is good or bad.

There is no doubt, based on all available data, that West Virginia is doing a better job than the majority of other states when it comes to getting vaccines into arms. Since Dec. 14 when the state first received doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, health officials and the West Virginia National Guard worked quickly to get doses to frontline healthcare workers in hospitals and residents and staff of long-term care facilities by the end of December.

It’s that evidence that resulted in national news outlets interviewing Justice about how the state is doing compared to other states. Both CNBC and Fox News have talked with the Governor about vaccinations (as well as the U.S. Capitol attack and what his friend President Donald Trump should be doing now). That positive attention the TV news gave Justice is part of the reason Justice is mad at West Virginia media.

At the end of the day, it’s great that national news outlets are recognizing West Virginia for something positive, especially in light of the arrest and resignation of former delegate Derrick Evans after his part in the U.S. Capitol attack. But those same national news outlets are not in West Virginia and not based in West Virginia. They are free to move on to the next topic in their A-block. Your local newspaper, TV, and radio outlets are here every day to report on all things, good or bad.

Don’t get me wrong, I can take criticism from elected officials. Sometimes we in media can be thin-skinned, overly defensive, and self-righteous. If we’re not making elected officials angry from time to time, we’re not doing our jobs right. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and disinfectants sting when they get into a cut.

It’s great that Justice has opened up vaccinations for the 80 and older population, along with the 70 and older population now as well. I talked to one of the older people I profiled in a story two weeks ago who said he was able to get the vaccine along with his wife. But I’m going to be frank: it took me a week – two briefings – of asking if the state was going to follow CDC guidelines for vaccinating the older population before Justice finally decided to do it.

Even then, his announcement caused issues. Health departments were not prepared, with lines forming around their buildings and phones ringing off the hook. Justice has done a good job overall during the pandemic, but the one thing he does that is bad is make snap decisions — sometimes in the middle of his briefings — without anyone being prepared or aware beforehand.

We media documented those issues, not because we want to report bad things but because that’s what happened. Yelling at us is not going to get you the coverage you want. Making better decisions and explaining how those decisions are made would be a better use of time.

•••

Speaking of reporting critically, one cannot say they are for local control and then take that local control away. But that’s what the state Board of Education did — under pressure from Justice — last week.

Instead of counties having the freedom to go to all-remote learning when they believe the number of COVID-19 cases are too high, now counties cannot do that. If it’s a Pre-K, elementary, or middle school, it either must be open five days a week or operate via a hybrid-blended model. High schools would only go full-remote if their county is in the red on the state County Alert System map. There is some flexibility to close specific schools or classrooms.

Look, my personal opinion based on the various data I’ve seen is that schools are safe places where COVID-19 transmission is low. Students need to be in school, not because teachers are glorified babysitters, but because they need in-person instruction and guidance. We’re at risk of sending students to the next grade and even out the door without the skills needed for college or the workplace.

That doesn’t mean that local county school systems shouldn’t have the flexibility to do what they believe is in the best interests of the students when it comes to COVID-19. If county boards of education make a call parents don’t like, they can vote them out. Unfortunately, the state Board of Education can’t be voted out: they are all appointed by the Governor.

At least one teachers’ union plans to file an injunction to halt the state BOE’s decision. They might have a cased to be made.

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