Dave Mistich Published

Gov. Justice Tweaks Metrics To Guide School Reopenings


Three days after unveiling a color-coded system to guide school reopenings, Gov. Jim Justice has revised metrics that trigger the various colors. The metrics put emphasis on community spread of the coronavirus in guiding reopening procedures, his administration said.  


Justice initially announced protocols late last week to guide school reopenings, which he and his administration say are based on a model from the Harvard Global Health Institute. The four-color system — green, yellow, orange and red — sets a rate of cases to determine which color each county would be designated.  


Counties that are designated orange or red will not be allowed to have athletic competitions, and red counties must suspend in-person instruction and transition to remote learning plans, Justice said. 


On Monday, members of the Justice administration struggled to clarify some aspects of the metrics and protocols.  


During a virtual news briefing, Justice announced he had tweaked the number of cases that would constitute green and yellow levels — which are considered safe to reopen for in-person learning.  


Counties with zero to three cases per 100,000 residents on a seven-day rolling average would now be considered green, Justice said. According to the state Department of Education’s website at the time, three to nine cases would be considered yellow. 


When West Virginia Public Broadcasting sought clarification on how three cases per 100,000 residents would be classified, a spokesman for the governor said that a case rate of 3.5 to nine would be deemed yellow. 


“That’s intended to indicate that a rate of 3.5, for example, would be categorized as yellow not green,” Justice spokesman Jordan Damron told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an email.  


Still looking to better understand the metrics, West Virginia Public Broadcasting was referred to a spokeswoman with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, who indicated counties that had a rate of three or fewer cases of community spread would be green. Those with 3.1 to 9.9 would be yellow, counties with 10 to 24.9 would be orange and those with 25 or more would be red, according to information provided. 


Those thresholds had been updated for a second time on the West Virginia Department of Education’s website as of Monday afternoon. 


Justice also said Monday that each positive case from staff members in settings such as nursing homes or correctional centers will now be counted as one. Earlier protocols dictated that each staff member would be counted as a half case.  


Justice’s opponent for governor, Democrat Ben Salango, has said that Justice was trying to keep numbers low and push schools to reopen for in-person instruction.  


“There’s been some saber-rattling of the media, which is just as ridiculous as ridiculous can be,” Justice said Monday about the protocols initially released Friday.  


The updated guidelines still count coronavirus cases in nursing home residents and inmates at correctional centers as only one overall case per facility, no matter how many cases it might have. The idea is to put less emphasis on those types of congregate settings, according to health officials advising Justice on the virus.  


“We know that the congregate spread — among, say, residents of nursing home or correctional facility inmates — are in that place and they’re not going to go to the community to spread,” said state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh. 


Marsh said the Harvard Global Health Institute model does not account for small populations like those that are seen in many of West Virginia’s counties. That’s why he and others leading the state’s response have tried to innovate beyond guidance from the Harvard model. 


“What we really are concerned about in our counties — particularly related to school openings and some of the guidance that we talked about last week — is related to the amount and the rate of community spread,” Marsh said.  


As of Monday, four counties — Boone, Lincoln, Mingo and Taylor — are in the orange. Logan County is currently designated red. Justice has said both levels would not be ready to safely reopen. 


Based on a survey of its members, the West Virginia Education Association is asking districts to start this year with distance learning. The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia has called for certain safety protocols, including proper PPE, contact tracing and testing, to be in place before reopening.