Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday that all schools in West Virginia are closed for the foreseeable future in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Neighboring states began announcing statewide school closures Thursday.
“We’re closing schools as long as we have to close the schools,” Justice said at a Friday morning news conference.
The closures took effect at the end of the day.
Justice said a question kept coming back to him when he was considering closing schools: “What if we awaken to a situation where we’ve lost a lot of our elderly people? How are you going to answer the question of why did you wait?”
He said schools are “a breeding ground, we know that, and they can go right straight back and go to their grandparents and whatever it may be and cause a real lot of problems.”
Children and staff members can be carriers of the virus to particularly vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with chronic health problems.
Justice said he also was concerned about teachers being harmed. However, late Friday afternoon, the state Department of Education announced in a news release that “while schools are closed to students, faculty and staff are expected to report to work.”
“The primary purpose of requiring staff to report to schools is to maintain continuity of instruction to students,” department Communications Director Christy Day wrote in an email. “That can be accomplished by distance learning and other means to be determined at the local level. With fewer people at the school, there is less need to work in close proximity to one another and therefore less risk of spread of disease.”
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said counties may continue or start online instruction at their discretion — or not start it at all.
“We will still ask that they do have a plan in place of how they’re going to support children academically, socially, emotionally and even physically,” he said.
The Kanawha County school system, the state’s most populous, announced late Friday that its teachers will be required to continue posting work for students online through services such as Schoology.
Kanawha, which has been on spring break, provides iPad tablet computers to every student starting in fourth grade, although it doesn’t usually let fourth- and fifth-graders take them home. The school system announced that parents of fourth- and fifth-graders may pick up their child’s iPad at their schools from 8 a.m. to noon Monday.
Counties will keep their school-based health centers, day cares, credit recovery, Adult Basic Education and Advanced Career Education open.
Burch said he learned about Justice’s decision just a few minutes before the governor announced it. Burch expressed support for the move.
He said he met with all 55 county superintendents about two hours before the news conference but didn’t tell them schools would be closing because he didn’t know then. He said they learned from Justice’s news conference that plans had changed.
Before the news conference, Burch tweeted that he “strongly recommended” all extracurricular activities be canceled starting Monday. Later, he turned the recommendation into a mandate.
Burch said school systems have been preparing for weeks for possible closures. Those efforts included making plans to feed children.
“They’re all ready,” Burch said of county superintendents.
It’s unclear where the governor derived the legal authority to close all public schools — which are generally under the executive authority of the state Board of Education — and private schools. Department of Education officials didn’t say where in policy or law this authority came from, and the Governor’s Office didn’t respond to queries.
Tim Bishop, director of marketing and communications for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which includes the state’s 25 Roman Catholic schools, said the diocese didn’t know beforehand that Justice would make the announcement.
“We don’t feel slighted at all,” Bishop said. “We don’t feel like he owed us anything in making his decision. We applaud his efforts to keep children safe and keep residents of this state safe.”
Bishop said the diocese had told its schools about a week ago to follow the lead of the public school system. He said a majority of the Catholic schools provide students with iPads or Chromebook computers, many Catholic students rely on public school transportation to get to school, and public school officials are being continually updated on the virus.
“It’s only wise to lean on them and the expertise they’re getting to make our decisions,” Bishop said.
At least 21,900 public or private schools nationwide had been closed or were scheduled to close as of about 2 p.m. Friday, according to Education Week, a national industry trade journal.
Only six other states were doing so statewide, according to Education Week. Three border West Virginia: Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland. All three announced their closures before West Virginia did.
Justice noted those states in his announcement. A few hours later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all K-12 schools closed for two weeks.
Ensuring children are fed was among the concerns about closing schools in West Virginia, where poverty rates are among the nation’s highest. Closure worries were lightened when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a waiver request from West Virginia allowing churches, nonprofit groups, schools and others to receive federal reimbursement for feeding students individually, rather than in groups, according to Sam Runyon, a staff member for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Runyon said Manchin wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging the waiver’s approval.
“I am glad Secretary Perdue agrees this is an urgent matter and hope that this will help our state leaders make the right decisions to protect all West Virginians from this virus, including closing our schools if necessary,” Manchin said in a statement.
Burch said some counties will use school buses to deliver food to students, and they may utilize the bus stops. He said Kentucky, which some counties might emulate, is allowing parents to do drive-thru food pickups. He said organizations such as food pantries and after-school networks also might help.
Kanawha announced that its eight public high schools will serve as food preparation sites for bagged lunches, and buses will transport those to the other schools.
Students may get lunches from 10:30 a.m. to either noon or 12:30 p.m. at the high schools, and from 11 a.m. to noon at the other schools. Kanawha isn’t accommodating families who cannot transport themselves to a school.
As of Thursday night, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wasn’t recommending that all schools close — even in communities with identified cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That put responsibility on local health officials to determine what schools should do.
“Local health officials may recommend temporary school dismissals if a student or staff member attended school prior to being confirmed as a COVID-19 case,” the CDC said. “If a student or staff member has been identified with COVID-19, school and program administrators should seek guidance from local health officials to determine when students and staff should return to schools and what additional steps are needed for the school community.
“Schools are not expected to make decisions about dismissal or canceling events on their own. Schools can seek specific guidance from local health officials to determine if, when, and for how long to take these steps.”