Emily Allen Published

Governor Changes COVID-19 Map To Reopen Schools In Five Counties

School Alert System Map Revised September 15, 2020

West Virginia officials are once more changing a color-coded map of coronavirus cases that determines whether it’s safe for local school boards to offer in-person learning and extracurricular activities.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice announced the introduction of a new color – gold – for counties that report either 10 to 14.9 daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, or a daily positivity rate of less than 5 percent.

Both metrics are reported on a seven-day average.

Justice and State Superintendent Clayton Burch said during a virtual briefing Tuesday that they hope this will put more West Virginia students back in the classroom.

“The No. 1 thing for me is that this puts more children [where they can have] access to their teachers,” Burch said, adding that there were more than 67,000 kids who couldn’t report to the classroom on Monday due to the map’s previous rules.

The gold category is now the third-worst color out of five. Counties in the gold level, previously a part of the orange level, will still hold in-person classes, but they’re barred from large gatherings and opportunities for student mingling, according to new metrics from the West Virginia Department of Education.

Counties in the orange and red levels – with 15 or more daily cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day average – are still barred from in-person instruction and most out-of-school activities.

Five Counties Now In The Gold

On Tuesday, five counties – Putnam, Mingo, Logan Boone and Fayette – were reclassified from orange to gold. 

Superintendents of schools in those five counties are deciding Tuesday whether they’ll reopen their classroom to in-person instruction this week, after they were told to close Monday.

In Fayette County, superintendent Gary Hough said he decided his schools will offer a blended learning approach Thursday and Friday, allowing half of the schools’ students to return to the classroom each day.

Student athletes will be allowed to play against other schools in the county this week.

“It has nothing to do with games,” Hough said of his decision. “My reason is really, our parents that signed up for remote have really struggled because we did not have time to teach the students the learning platform. … It has not been as successful as we would’ve liked it to be. And there are parents struggling that didn’t sign up for remote.”

Counties with less than 10 daily cases on a seven-day average will stay in the green and yellow zones, allowing them to hold in-person classes.

In addition to changing the map, Burch announced that the state will impose new rules on students and school personnel to further mitigate coronavirus spread. Starting Tuesday, all students in grades 3 through 12 in gold, orange and red counties are required to wear face masks.

Outside of schools, Coronavirus Czar Clay Marsh said the Justice administration is calling on “much stronger” enforcement from county health departments, when it comes to the governor’s executive orders for face coverings. 

“We know from all of the information that we have available that mask- wearing does reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19,” Marsh said. “The combination of mask-wearing and physical distancing is really so important.”

Local Control

Roughly two hours before Justice spoke with members of the press, his opponent in the 2020 election – Democrat and Kanawha County commissioner Ben Salango – held his own virtual briefing, during which he said Justice’s map and its new changes go against local control.

“Jim Justice has changed the map so many times that our parents are confused,” Salango said. “Our kids, our teachers, our student athletes want to be in school. They want to be on the field. We can only fix this by returning control to local decision-makers. We’ve got to make sure that it’s the county boards of education, that it’s our superintendents making the decisions about whether or not kids in their county go to school, whether or not kids in their county are playing sports.”

After adopting a color-coded system for tracking coronavirus cases from the Harvard Global Institute in August, the Justice administration tweaked the map at least twice, reducing some of the earlier maps’ stringency.

The West Virginia Education Association – a union for school personnel – released a statement Tuesday afternoon, calling the change “unwise and unnecessary.”

“I certainly understand the need to have our students in school but if doing so risks the health of our school employees, students or their families, it is not worth the risk,” WVEA President Dale Lee wrote.

The West Virginia chapter for the American Federation of Teachers agreed, writing in another statement that they question the mid-week timing of the governor’s changes. 

Burch said during Justice’s press briefing Tuesday that he believes creating a new category will actually facilitate more local control than the state offered last week.

“We want this to be a local decision,” Burch said. “We want them to be able to do what they need to do for their community. And I think this absolutely allows him to do that.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.