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Education
Justice signs bills on Bible classes, reducing college oversight, disciplining educators, requiring AEDs, studying student discipline and enacting 'Tim Tebow'

Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Wednesday a bill specifically saying that Bible classes are allowed in public high schools.

Some prominent West Virginia religious leaders opposed the legislation during this year’s regular legislative session, saying it discriminated against non-Christian faiths.

Justice also signed numerous other education-related bills Wednesday, the last day he had to sign or veto bills that passed during the session. Any he didn’t take action on by that time would automatically become law without his signature.

From requiring devices that can save students from heart attacks, to cracking down on educators who try to sexually abuse kids, here are some education bills the governor has now made law:

HB 4780 Bible classes

This says county school systems may offer Bible classes in public high schools.

West Virginia Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens has said counties already were allowed to offer such classes “if the course was voluntary and from a historical perspective only.”

Education officials may allow the optional course to count as one of the four social studies credits high schoolers must obtain to graduate.

The law includes a line saying a point of the course is to teach “knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Senators had previously removed the Bible references from an almost identical bill, changing it to say counties may offer a course “on sacred texts or comparative world religions.”

The Senate unanimously passed that version of the bill to the House of Delegates. But the House never acted on it.

In a twist, a majority of senators quickly then backed the House’s version of the bill, which the House had passed 73-26. That version, which Justice has now signed, references only the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Senate passed the House version with only Sens. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier; William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio; and Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, voting no. Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, was absent.

SB 760 Reducing state oversight of public college spending

This will allow more West Virginia public four-year colleges to become exempt from state oversight of their spending on things like multimillion-dollar buildings and new academic programs.

It will likely free Fairmont State, Shepherd and West Liberty universities from that supervision immediately.

The state’s larger colleges were exempted in a 2017 bill, so the new bill would leave Bluefield State College, Concord University, Glenville State College and West Virginia State University as the only four colleges that would continue to require state Higher Education Policy Commission approval for this spending and for creating possibly duplicative academic offerings.

Under this bill, colleges would have to meet any three of these five criteria to earn exemption:

  • A six-year graduation rate of at least 45% on average over three years;
  • A retention rate, meaning the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen who return for a second academic year, of at least 60% on average over three years;
  • Not having an enrollment decrease of more than 5%, not including high-schoolers taking college classes, over three years;
  • At least 50 days cash reserved for operations on average over the past three years; or
  • A Composite Financial Index (CFI) of not less than 1, as determined by audits.

Schools that don’t currently meet enough criteria might meet them in the future and earn exemption. Alternatively, a school not meeting any criteria could persuade the Higher Education Policy Commission to grant exemption, and the commission could grant it, under the bill.

Each college has its own Board of Governors. The Higher Education Policy Commission is the agency that’s supposed to oversee four-year colleges from a statewide perspective.

The Senate passed this 28-5 with Beach absent, and the House passed this 91-9.

HB 3127 ‘Tim Tebow’ bill

This will allow home-schooled students to participate in the vast majority of public school sports and bands, if they take one online public school course.

This is often called a “Tim Tebow” bill, after the University of Florida quarterback who got to play public school sports despite being home-schooled.

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission regulates football, basketball and other sports and band for public, and some private, middle and high schools.

SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said that, before the new law, home-schoolers could already participate in the sports and band of the public school their address is zoned for, if they took four online courses and were vaccinated, as public school students are.

While the bill will lower that requirement to one online class, it will keep the vaccination requirement and require home-schoolers to submit their scores on tests of their choosing to provide some means of determining academic eligibility.

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was the only senator to vote against this. He said he voted no because it didn’t also allow a student of a non-SSAC-member private school to play sports at other schools if their own school didn’t have the sport they wanted to play.

Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, was absent for the vote.

The House passed it 61-38, with only Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, absent.

HB 4378 Revoking licenses of teachers who abuse children

This will require county boards of education to — when there’s evidence an employee jeopardized a student’s health or safety — finish investigating the employee even if they resign before the investigation is done.

It will also strengthen the current requirement that county schools superintendents report suspended or fired employees to the state superintendent by mandating this reporting within seven days, and also requiring reporting of workers who resign amid investigations.

The state superintendent will also be required to maintain a public database “of individuals who have had adverse action taken against their teaching certificate by the state superintendent.”

It will also mandate that educators who “groom” students or minors for sexual abuse automatically lose their licenses for at least five years. This revocation will no longer be an optional choice left up to the state schools superintendent.

Grooming will be defined as “befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a student or minor, which may include the family of the student or minor, to lower the student’s or minor’s inhibitions” to sexually abuse them.

This mandatory revocation will also apply to any educator who “exploited a student” in various ways, including sexual abuse, that “escalated into a relationship with the exploited student within 12 months of that student’s graduation.”

In December, stories by The Arizona Republic, KJZZ and the Gazette-Mail revealed former University High Assistant Principal Pete Cheesebrough had kissed a student, his Monongalia County superiors had investigated him, they allowed him to quietly resign, he began teaching in Arizona, and now-former West Virginia state superintendent Steve Paine had declined to revoke the teaching certification he used to work in Arizona.

Paine wrote in an order that he didn’t want to affect Cheesebrough’s new teaching job.

Not revoking his certification could have also allowed Cheesebrough to return to teaching in West Virginia. Cheesebrough was never prosecuted or found guilty of any crime.

The Senate passed this with no nays and only Mann absent. The House passed it with no nays and only Delegates Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley; Nathan Brown, D-Mingo; and John Kelly, R-Wood, absent.

HB 4497 Requiring AEDs at games and practices

This will require automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on the school or event grounds during all games or practices “under the control, supervision and regulation” of the SSAC.

That means the vast majority of public school sports, and many private school sports.

The American Red Cross says AEDs can analyze the heart’s rhythm and deliver an electrical shock, also called defibrillation, to help re-establish an effective rhythm. Currently, the SSAC only recommends that schools have AEDs.

The Red Cross says AEDs are the only way to restore that rhythm during cardiac arrest, and for each minute defibrillation is delayed, odds of survival drop by about 10 percent.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House passed it 99-0. Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, was absent.

The law is named after Alex Miller, the Roane County High football player who went into cardiac arrest at a game at Clay County High in September and died.

SB 723 Making education department address student discipline disparities

This will require the state Department of Education to study school discipline statewide, develop a program to address the study’s findings and report back to lawmakers every two years on the discipline data and the progress made, both in the statewide program and in individual counties’ programs.

The law says this “will include information by subgroup, including but not limited to, race, gender and disability.”

Reports have shown black students in West Virginia, and nationwide, are receiving out-of-school suspensions from public schools at far higher rates than white students.

The bill cleared the Senate unanimously and the House passed it with only Delegates Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley; Jim Butler, R-Mason; and Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, voting no.


National
AP
Governor urges Falwell to rethink welcoming students

RICHMOND, Va. — In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia’s governor asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus this week after their spring break.

Speaking at a news conference in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam criticized Liberty, which is among the nation’s largest and most prominent evangelical colleges, as sending “mixed messages” about COVID-19. The illness has crippled economies, forced restrictions on the movement of millions of people and swamped health care systems.

As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, after Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.

However, residential students were told they were “welcome” to return to campus, according to an email sent to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which has said only students who have “no other options” can remain on campus, and William & Mary, which closed its residence halls.

“I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis and to please reconsider his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus,” said Northam, who is a doctor.

In a statement that accused Northam of making “false accusations,” the university said it was in compliance with all of the governor’s directives and applicable federal guidance. It noted that health inspectors performing an unannounced inspection earlier in the week found no violations.

“Our students are part of the Lynchburg community!” Liberty said in a statement. “They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable.”

Liberty officials have said about 1,500 of the approximately 15,000 residential students are back on campus.

Falwell, one of President Donald Trump’s earliest and most ardent high-profile supporters, has generally characterized concerns about the virus as overblown. He has offered unsubstantiated speculation that the coronavirus may have been the work of North Korea and accused the news media of stoking fear.

An email sent to students last week and obtained by AP said that “all residential students are welcome to either stay in place or return to campus with various safety measures in place.”

Local officials told AP they were fielding complaints from residents and Liberty parents about the school’s policy. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement Tuesday that she thought the decision letting students return was “reckless.”


Coronavirus
Kanawha COVID-19 cases double, one in assisted living home

COVID-19 cases in Kanawha County more than doubled Wednesday, rising from six confirmed cases to 13 by Wednesday evening, with one in an assisted living home, according to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at KCHD, said the uptick was expected. As testing has picked up, it’s understandable to see more cases confirmed, especially cases involving community spread instead of travel, she said at a Wednesday news conference.

“The numbers are pouring in this morning,” Young said. “This is what we anticipated, that we would see the more people we bring in to test ... that we’ll have more numbers.”

One of those positive cases came from an assisted living home in Charleston, according to a Wednesday evening news release from KCHD.

The release said the individual lives at Brookdale Charleston Gardens.

On Wednesday afternoon, a combined team from Charleston Area Medical Center, KCHD and the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority arrived at the facility to test its 81 residents for COVID-19 “out of an abundance of caution,” Young wrote in the release.

Three cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among workers at the Kanawha County Judicial Annex. Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango said the most recent case was confirmed Tuesday evening.

Salango said employees from the annex, which has been shut down and sanitized, have been asked to self-quarantine until March 29, and employees who may be at high-risk for the disease are being set up for testing.

There is no set date to reopen the annex, Salango said.

Earlier this week, Gov. Jim Justice ordered that all non-essential businesses in the state shut down and that everyone, to the extent that they are able, should stay home and away from others unless there is an emergency.

Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said Wednesday that she worries some people are not taking the order seriously.

“I know we are starting to sound like a broken record, but this is, without question, the most serious time of all of our lives,” Goodwin said. “That’s why we take these precautions, that’s why we’re preparing.”

Goodwin again emphasized that everyone should be staying home. There should not be social gatherings at this time, she said, and people who may be ignoring the precautions should consider those they are putting at risk.

“I want you to check your moral compass every time you gather at your home or in other places. Every time. That’s what I’m doing,” Goodwin said. “The more and more I see folks congregating, the more I worry about every police officer, first responder, health care worker that’s at risk. You should think of them, too.”

Young said there has been a case in Kanawha County where someone tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an event with others. She said people should remember that this is entirely different from illnesses like the chicken pox or the flu.

“There is no vaccine here, we don’t have a treatment, it’s a completely different beast,” Young said.

Every person right now should be focused on what they can do to slow the spread of COVID-19, Young said. For most, Young said, that entails staying at home and not putting others at risk.

“We have enough spread unintentionally,” Young said. “Do not, do not, intentionally spread this virus.”


Advisories
Boil-water advisories: March 26, 2020

water advisories

Beckley Water Company has issued a boil-water advisory for all of Canterbury Drive and all side streets in the Calloway Heights area of Beckley. This includes Harvel Drive and all streets on the north side of Rural Acres Drive from Walnut Street to Canterbury Drive. Included in this advisory is Front Street and all side streets. The advisory follows a water main break.

West Virginia American Water has issued a boil-water advisory for approximately 65 customers on Forest Circle and Lynn Street in South Charleston. The advisory follows a water main break.

Customers in these areas should boil their water for at least one full minute prior to use until further notice.