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Justice calls lawmakers in for special session two days before regular session

Four days before the start of the 2022 West Virginia Legislative Session, Gov. Jim Justice issued a proclamation calling the Legislature to meet for a special session on Monday.

Justice wants lawmakers to fast-track six bills “all relating generally economic development” during the single-day session.

Justice is asking lawmakers to move surplus general revenue money and funds from various state agencies to the Department of Economic Development, according to the proclamation he issued Saturday.

Justice wants lawmakers to move money from agencies including the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and West Virginia State Police, to the Department of Economic Development, according to his proclamation.

The governor also is asking lawmakers to move remaining CARES Act money for coronavirus aid back to the DHHR and the Department of Homeland Security to supplement the money that would be moved to the Department of Economic Development.

The bills are supplemental appropriation bills that will “assure jobs and goodness for generations to come,” Justice said in a news release sent out at 10:22 p.m. Saturday.

The proclamation does not include dollar figures indicating how much money Justice is asking lawmakers to move around.

The State of West Virginia has more than $20.1 million in CARES Act money in-pocket, according to the West Virginia Auditor’s website. The deadline to spend the money is Sept. 30.

Justice also is asking lawmakers consider a measure to provide “certain tax incentives, based upon certain investment and employment thresholds, to promote development and expansion of new labor and capital intensive heavy industry in the state.”

“The appropriations on the governor is requesting the Legislature to make will be used by our Department of Economic Development to secure tremendous private investment all around the state,” Justice said. “These appropriations will mark the largest investment in economic development in this state’s history, and will pay untold dividends in recruiting businesses, their employees and families, and further private investment in West Virginia.”

West Virginia has more than $400 million in budget surpluses so far for fiscal year 2022, due, in part, to lowered revenue estimates and higher-than-expected severance tax revenue due to high prices for natural gas.

In November, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow told lawmakers state tax collection was benefitting from the severance tax spike caused by high natural gas prices. He warned lawmakers that the increase could be short-lived.

Lawmakers already are convening in Charleston for interim committee meetings Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday ahead of the start of the 60-day regular session that begins Wednesday.

Justice is scheduled to give his State of the State address Wednesday evening. He teased announcements for the upcoming week in the news release Saturday night.

Among recent potential big investments for West Virginia is a $2.7 billion steel recycling facility by North Carolina-based Nucor Corporation.

The company announced in September that West Virginia was among three states in which executives were considering establishing a steel recycling facility.

Nucor manufactures steel and steel products and brokers certain steel components through The David J. Joseph Company, according to the company’s website.

The company has facilities in 23 states in the United States, including Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

The company is the largest recycler in North America, according to its website.

Prichard woman receives honorary Buffalo High diploma

HUNTINGTON — A 94-year-old Prichard resident became the last official Buffalo High School graduate on Dec. 14.

Martha Roberts left Buffalo High School in 1945 as a junior, but 76 years later, she received her honorary diploma from Buffalo High School during a Wayne County Board of Education meeting at Spring Valley High School.

“One thing, at my age, I would’ve never dreamed it, but I got it,” Roberts said. “But it felt good, and I told [board members] I was gonna go get me a job.”

Roberts left high school to work at a Sylvania plant that produced items for proximity fuses and antiaircraft shells to be shipped to those fighting in World War II. Roberts said she worked along siblings and friends to serve her country.

Coming from a family of 10, Roberts said the decision to leave school was mainly to support her family. She worked alongside her sister Beulah Carroll and friends Allean Hunt and Alma Powell in Huntington while her partner, Lewis Roberts, served in the U.S. Army.

Martha went on to marry Lewis after he returned from service, and she said after about 30 years together, in the early 80s, they decided to get their GEDs.

“We just woke up one day and decided we wanted to do it, so we did,” she said.

Though Lewis Roberts died in 2016, Martha Roberts and her daughter, Rhonda Compton, said they knew he was at the diploma ceremony in spirit.

Roberts’ son-in-law Bob Compton helped orchestrate his mother-in-law’s ceremony after learning she is a “Rosie” — a term short for Rosie the Riveter, or the women who took jobs in factories to replace men called to war. The term is also used to represent women who worked in the military.

Bob Compton said after Roberts was recognized as a Rosie in September, he was asked if the family had considered trying to get her an honorary diploma.

Compton said he had to explain that Buffalo High School is no longer in operation, with the last graduating class being in 1998, but that did not slow anyone down.

“I thought there would’ve been a lot more red tape, a lot more things to be done,” he said. “But once people started talking to each other, everything was really smooth and went a lot quicker than I thought.”

At the board meeting, students from different schools were also recognized for academic achievements, so the Spring Valley High School auditorium was full of Wayne County families. Wayne County Schools Superintendent Todd Alexander said he was happy they were able to have the recognitions at the same time so Roberts could be seen and honored by the community.

“I think it’s fantastic that people are reaching out to us to give us the opportunity to honor somebody who attended our high schools and intended to graduate but stepped up during a time when the country was in need,” he said. “And just the fact that we were in the auditorium and there were so many people there and she received a standing ovation — we were happy to be able to be a part of that.”

‘Outdoor Fitness Park’ project in motion for Madison area

MADISON — An outdoor fitness park project is in motion for the Madison area and could see a groundbreaking as early as the summer of 2022.

Resident Nick Dolan presented his plan, which would be supported through grant funding, during a Boone County Commission meeting on Dec. 28.

The Marshall University medical student is spearheading the project himself and only needed a letter of support from the commission to take the next step in the application process.

Dolan is a member of Marshall University’s Men’s Health Organization, which looks for projects like this in the community — and he said Boone County fits that bill.

“I’ve had this idea for an outdoor fitness center,” Dolan said. “I saw one in Charlotte right in the heart of the city and a ton of people used it. So, I started getting quotes for it and I’m in the early stages of it.”

He added, “I think we generally know why it is needed with a lack of recreational activity, obesity, diabetes and several other chronic diseases with high substance abuse rates in the area and a need for activity for all age groups.”

The hydraulic exercise equipment is designed for ages 16 to 65.

Dolan has reached out to the Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health regarding the potential for additional funding for the project.

“Why I’m here is, I need help — because I’m only 23,” he said with a laugh. “I need help with getting a location.”

Dolan said he had scoped out Madison City Park and four different locations in downtown Madison as potential plots for the 1,500-square-foot concrete pad needed for the equipment.

Commissioners told Dolan he would need to attend a City of Madison council meeting and offer his presentation to Mayor Buddy Hudson and council members.

Dolan had secured a graphic designer to construct digital plans and mapping for the project, which he shared with county commissioners.

The park will feature stations designed for each muscle group, including chest press, shoulder press and tricep push-downs, among others.

“What you [as a commission] can do to help is to help me find the property and committing to the continued maintenance after the project,” he said.

Dolan said liability insurance for the park would need to be included under the umbrella of the county’s policy for its other properties.

“I understand that some of this will be town-level stuff, but I just wanted it to be known,” he said. “Mayor Mark McClure of the Town of Danville has already written me a letter of support. He was the first one to come in.”

Dolan said he will write 10-year maintenance costs into the project’s budget.

“You’re 23 years old and already thinking outside the box, and that is what we’ve got to have,” said Commission President Craig Bratcher. “We need people like you pushing for good things, and we appreciate you and all of your efforts to make this project happen.”

WV universities to return to on-campus learning as COVID cases increase

HUNTINGTON — As an increase in COVID-19 cases forces higher education institutions across the country to return to remote learning, two of West Virginia’s universities are welcoming students back to campus.

Marshall University and West Virginia University have opted to strengthen policies meant to combat the spread of COVID-19, while monitoring the prevailing omicron variant.

Across the country, dozens of colleges have made the decision to move classes online for at least the first week or more of the spring semester. Those switches could last longer if cases continue to increase.

Marshall officials said they are monitoring the situation and prepared to return to virtual learning, but as of Thursday, it’s not in the forecast.

Return to campus

Students at Marshall who started making their return to campus Friday were welcomed at a testing tent before returning to their dorm rooms. All returning students must undergo COVID-19 testing.

Tracy Smith, director of environmental health and safety at Marshall, said originally they had planned to just test residence hall students regardless of vaccination status because of the communal living space.

However, discussions with the Higher Education Policy Commission helped guide the university to the decision of testing every student. HEPC helped provide testing kits to take on the task.

Students living in residence halls must report to a testing tent at 1801 6th Ave. to be tested before returning to their dorm.

All others will be tested at the same location, or the lower level of the student center, when they arrive on campus for the semester. Students also have to sign a “return to campus agreement” to indicate they will comply with expectations.

Beyond full testing, Smith said not much has changed with protocols this semester.

“We’re still doing our disinfection of classroom and campus buildings. And, you know, we’ve really never dropped our mask mandate. We’re going to continue with that,” he said. “So nothing really has changed with this semester and what we’ve done in the past. We’ve been very successful.”

He stressed the importance of the university’s partnerships with local hospitals, the health department, HEPC and schools of nursing, pharmacy and medicine, whose students have been key in helping conduct testing. The university meets with partners twice a week to discuss information as it develops.

“It’s been a community effort,” he said.

West Virginia University will revive its mask mandate on campus this semester and has ordered students to verify their vaccination status as well.

The university, in partnership with the state Department of Health and Human Resources, will provide students, faculty and staff with a free self-testing kit and a KN95 mask; however, it did not indicate if the testing was required.

“Now more than ever, we are asking our unvaccinated students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine and for those who are vaccinated to get a booster if they are eligible,” said Dr. Jeffrey Coben, dean of the School of Public Health at WVU and associate vice president for Health Affairs. “It is imperative that we all do our part to protect ourselves and each other as we navigate this latest wave in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Vaccines and testing

Smith said about 80% of the student population is vaccinated, along with 89.5% of employees. The rate is higher than the 63.9% of Cabell County residents who the West Virginia DHHR reported had received at least one dose.

“Our numbers over the last couple of semesters, we’ve been actually doing much better on campus than the community around us,” he said. “So Marshall University is a pretty safe place to come in education.”

WVU boasts similar rates, with 92% of its staff and 82% of students being vaccinated.

Surveillance testing and vaccination opportunities for students and employees will be available throughout the semester. The university also has its own internal contact tracers trained by the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, who can contact faculty, staff and students and provide them with guidance in the case of a positive test.

A residence hall on campus is designated as a quarantine facility to help students who live on campus isolate.

“So all of that kind of combines together — the partnership, the contact tracing, our testing, vaccinations and our protocols — and that’s why we were successful before and that’s why we think we can continue this,” Smith said.

Across the country

As of Jan. 1, The Associated Press said more than 70 colleges across 26 states are starting the spring term online, and others said they are considering it. Many making the move now use quarter systems that start earlier than those with semesters.

George Washington University students returned to campus in Washington, D.C., last week, but classes will be held online until Jan. 18 as officials ramp up virus testing and isolate any infected students. The school has more than doubled its isolation space and moved up the deadline for a new booster shot requirement by three weeks because of omicron. Officials said they realize returning to in-person learning might not happen.

At the University of California, Riverside, students returned last week but face two weeks of online classes. They are also being asked to sequester for five days while they undergo two rounds of virus testing. Chancellor Kim Wilcox said it is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading after students return from holiday travel, calling it a way to rebuild the bubble and reset.

Syracuse University in New York pushed its semester back a week, citing projections that the first three weeks of January will be “the most challenging of this surge.”

Others, like Marshall and WVU, are pressing ahead with in-person learning, saying the health risks are low with masks and booster shots.

Marshall looks forward

Smith said it is a possibility Marshall could return to remote learning should COVID-19 cases continue to rise, but he said the university has a “very robust” IT department and all faculty members are prepared to go virtual if needed.

The university has reviewed the move of some universities that have chosen to go virtual for the start of the spring semester, but Smith does not think the same is necessary for Marshall.

“We feel confident that we can at least get our kids, our students, back on campus, and we’re prepared to go virtually if we have to, but nothing replaces face-to-face learning. That’s where our students learn the best.”

He said the full testing will give a good gauge of where the university stands as it monitors the situation.