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As the Delta COVID-19 variant continues to surge around the country, masking policies in schools were major points of discussion at the September West Virginia Board of Education meeting.
As of Thursday morning, there were 82 outbreak cases in West Virginia K-12 schools — that’s up by 12 from the day before. Those outbreak cases total more than 620 individual positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff — that’s up by nearly 100 individual cases from the day before.
The state’s education system is overwhelmed, officials said.
“The delta variant has not only overwhelmed our school system, but our local health departments,” said West Virginia Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Michelle Blatt. “So to encourage more of our counties, [we] along with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, have implemented that if you have a universal mask policy, then you do not have to do contact tracing.”
Blatt told state board of education members that the WVDE and DHHR are recommending that if schools in the state implement universal masking policies — meaning masks on at all times except in the cafeteria or outside — they will not need to do extensive contact tracing.
“That means we will not have the large number of quarantines,” Blatt told the board. “We will not have as many staff members out because we will have other protocols in place.”
Many schools are experiencing a record number of absences due to quarantines, and some schools have needed to temporarily close.
Whether to mask remains a local decision for county school districts in West Virginia.
Blatt said Wednesday that 29 counties have implemented universal masking policies, while 13 have issued a masking mandate that changes based on whether a county is orange or red on DHHR’s COVID-19 risk map.
Additionally, some counties require masks depending on the percentage of vaccinations in a school or the percentage of people who are in quarantine.
In total, there are 49 county school systems, as of Wednesday afternoon, with some type of masking policy.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in [outbreaks],” Blatt said. “Now with many more counties going to a mask mandate, we hope that numbers will decrease significantly.”
Following Blatt’s presentation, West Virginia Board of Education members had a lengthy discussion about whether to issue a statewide masking mandate and whether the state board has the power to do so.
“Our youngest children are vulnerable. They can’t get vaccinations,” said board member Debrah Sullivan. “They are the ones that are ending up now, nationally, in hospitals and dying. It just seems that we have a tsunami right now of cases, and if we could do anything to stop this flood, that we would do it … I wonder why we can’t take the decision [regarding masks] off the backs of the superintendents.”
Sullivan argued that prior to the availability of the vaccine, the state board of education did require masks of all 55 county school systems, and she argued they ought to think about doing that again. She equated masks as being no different than part of the dress code.
“It’s a piece of cloth. It’s a piece of paper,” Sullivan said. “And it protects everybody. Those who are unvaccinated, as well as those who are vaccinated.”
Another board member argued, however, it should continue to remain a local decision, because people will be more likely to comply.
West Virginia Board of Education President Miller Hall said a statewide mask mandate should be something they discuss at another meeting.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Hall said to Sullivan. “But right now, this is not a point for us to make a decision on whether today we should go back to masks or not. This is something that we have to think about. We have to discuss. Perhaps have an emergency meeting.”
Hall and other board members urged West Virginians to get the COVID-19 vaccinations. Several members called on residents to “step up” and get the shot.