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WV considering more 'tweaks' to color-coded COVID-19 school reopening map

As West Virginia enters week two of the 2020-21 school year, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday met with his team of advisers to discuss more changes to the map that guides what school looks like.

Justice and his team met at 5 p.m. Monday. At his afternoon coronavirus news briefing, Justice said he wanted to discuss possible changes to the color-code system, how to help counties with colleges that affect the ratio and to further discuss sports.

Justice said he believes the parameters of the orange phase (10 to 24.9 cases per 100,000) of the system are too broad and unfair. Instead, he would like to add a new phase — maybe gold — which would go in between yellow and orange.

“Maybe the difference is gold is smaller, maybe only 10-13,” Justice said. “What I am so saddened with [is] you have counties that have not even had the opportunity to start back to school. We need to try, with all in us, to do something about that. We could allow you to go to school in gold and play sports in gold. You could play any other county in gold or play within the county.”

Take Putnam County, for example. On Thursday, which is the weekly cutoff for the Department of Education’s map, Putnam County had only 11.89 cases per 100,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources map. That puts them on the cusp of being yellow, but still pretty far from going red, and Justice said he doesn’t think that’s fair.

The governor said he also wanted to revisit testing student-athletes. Before the season started, Justice offered the few counties in orange at the time the chance to test their football teams. If they were all negative, they could play, despite being in orange. All three counties declined the offer, and Justice said he didn’t think it feasible to mandate the testing of all high school football players.

The governor also said he wants to look into ways they could better isolate college campuses so college students don’t count toward the average in a county.

Justice could not give a clear answer as to when changes, if any, would be announced.

The possible “tweaks” to the school system come after parents and guardians navigated the second weekend monitoring the color-coded system.

In Cabell County, families who monitor the DHHR map woke up Saturday morning to the county changing from yellow to orange. This caused some alarm, as families tried to figure out if this meant Cabell County Schools had to move to virtual learning.

West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh, Justice’s coronavirus czar, said discrepancies happen between the two maps because the Department of Education cuts off Thursday evening. This provides the COVID-19 Data Review Panel time to verify the numbers, check whether cases are from the congregate setting or community, ensure their are no duplicates and allocate cases to appropriate counties.

The review process changed Calhoun County from orange to yellow this past weekend.

The school map is updated at 5 p.m. every Saturday.

There were 121 new positive cases reported Monday, and nine new COVID-19-related deaths: a 91-year-old woman from Cabell County; an 84-year-old woman from Kanawha County; a 78-year-old man from Grant County; a 66-year-old man from Harrison County; an 86-year-old man from Harrison County; a 76-year-old man from Harrison County; a 75-year-old woman from Kanawha County; a 71-year-old woman from Kanawha County; and an 83-year-old woman from Kanawha County. The deaths brought the state’s total fatalities to 275.

Ruthlawn Elementary awarded $1M by School Building Authority for improvements

Ruthlawn Elementary will get an indoor sprinkler system, upgrade its fire alarms, eliminate two trailer classrooms and add a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) hub after a vote Monday by the West Virginia School Building Authority’s board.

The board voted to provide Kanawha County with $1 million, atop the school system’s own contribution of about $338,000, to complete the project.

The two trailers serve pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners. The money will add two classrooms to the school, not only eliminating the need for the portable classrooms but also adding STEM “Exploratorium” spaces, such as ones at two other Kanawha elementaries.

The county should be ready to begin soliciting bids from contractors in the spring, with construction expected to take 18 months, according to a schools spokesperson.

SBA board members also chose, in a voice vote with no one dissenting, to dole out $3.7 million more to six other counties. The following project descriptions are based on written comments from employees of the SBA, and the counties are listed in order, starting with which project staff ranked second-most worthy, behind Kanawha, and then third-most, and so on:

  • Webster received $920,000, with the county providing no matching funds, for work at Webster Springs Elementary. The work will involve bathroom renovations, including improving accessibility for disabled students, plus replacing all components of the school’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

“The existing HVAC system components are all original to the geothermal system that was installed in the late 1990s,” the staff comments say. “The classroom units are extremely loud [and] parts are no longer available for repairs. The main system pumps for the well field are currently working over their capacity due to a failure of one of the units that the county could not afford to replace.”

  • Calhoun received $995,000, with the county providing no match, for a new roof to halt leaks and for replacing an HVAC rooftop unit at Pleasant Hill Elementary.
  • Upshur received $648,000, with the county providing $50,000, to replace a leaky roof at Union Elementary.
  • Lincoln received $676,000, with the county providing no match, to replace an HVAC system chiller and controls, and related components, at West Hamlin Elementary.
  • Randolph received $196,000, with the county providing no match, for door replacements at Tygarts Valley Middle-High.
  • Preston received $282,000, with the county providing a further $282,000, for a partial HVAC upgrade at Preston County High. The system has leaking air handlers that cause ceiling tiles to fall, and the money will replace air handlers in 26 classrooms.

While Randolph and Preston didn’t come immediately after Lincoln in the staff’s rankings, the four projects ranked ahead of them — in Wirt, Wayne, Mercer and Monroe counties, for things including a sprinkler system at Wayne Middle and HVAC upgrades at three Mercer schools — were each $1 million or more, meaning the board did not have enough money to add one of those.

The SBA gives tens of millions of dollars annually to county school systems for construction and renovation projects. The counties compete to convince the board they deserve funding from a limited pot of money.

Monday’s disbursements were from a specific fund, called the Major Improvement Projects Fund, which represents just a fraction of what the board doles out each year. Major Improvement Project grants to counties cannot exceed $1 million.

Hurricane Sally gathers strength as it approaches Gulf Coast

BILOXI, Miss. — Hurricane Sally continued to gather strength as it meandered off the Gulf Coast, an oaf of a storm that could linger with hard rain and 100-mph winds threatening to shove massive amounts of storm water onto the shores of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

“We do anticipate a lot of flooding,” Cecilia Dobbs Walton, Biloxi’s spokeswoman, said Monday. She repeated the city’s message to its population of 46,000: “Heed the warnings. Just prepare. You’ve been through this before. You’ve been through worse. Don’t let your guard down.”

The thud of nail guns pierced the air as residents boarded up houses at the last minute. Others fled the low-lying coast for higher ground.

“I blocked the windows off and hope for the best,” said Tyrone Adams, a part-time courier whose 57th birthday is two days after Sally is expected to make landfall today. “I can’t stop it. Hope that we don’t get pounded on.”

In another sign of a dangerous and troubling time, Sally is one of at least five tropical systems that swirled across the Atlantic on Monday, the most since 1971, when there were six. September has set a record for the most named storms in the Atlantic, said Phil Klotzbach, a tropical weather researcher at Colorado State University.

It’s been a record year for tropical activity in the Atlantic, with 20 named storms forming and obliterating the typical average of 11. A La Niña weather condition that’s cooling waters in the Pacific Ocean creates more tropical waters in the Atlantic, a condition ripe for hurricanes.

The number of storms with a closed, low-pressure center this hurricane season has nearly exhausted the alphabet to name them. Tropical storms Teddy and Vicky are the latest in a season that does not end until November.

More storms are possible this week as disturbances move off the western coast of Africa and take advantage of ocean temperatures that are warmer than average. After the next storm, forecasters will be forced to dip into the Greek alphabet for names, which would be the earliest this occurrence has happened. Greek names were most recently used in the Atlantic during the 2005 hurricane season, the busiest on record.

Tropical Storm Zeta, which required the sixth letter in the Greek alphabet, closed out that season.

Hurricanes Sally and Paulette are the only two that pose imminent threats to land, with Sally nearing the Gulf Coast and Paulette having moved over Bermuda, bringing a wind gust of 117 mph at an elevated marine observatory.

Sally was expected to strike the Mississippi coast tthis morning as a Category 2 hurricane. With its slow forward speed, the National Hurricane Center expects the storm to be linger, producing heavy downpours that could deluge parts of the Gulf Coast with more than 2 feet of rain that could cause widespread flooding.

If torrential downpours continue for hours in New Orleans, the capacity of the city’s pumping system would be challenged.

Mobile Bay, Alabama, is under a storm surge warning, and the National Hurricane Center anticipates 5 to 8 feet of inundation if a storm surge coincides with this evening’s high tide.

Nearby Dauphin Island could experience a 6- to 9-foot surge. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, closed the beaches Monday and recommended the evacuation of flood-prone areas south of Interstate 10.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, nine casinos and Keesler Air Force Base intensified preparations as the storm approached. An order sent operators of marinas and RV parks to high ground. Officials urged residents in flood-prone areas to seek shelter.

Dobbs Walton said the area suffered severe damage from Hurricane Nate, in 2017, and over a dozen years earlier during Hurricane Katrina.

Adams said his family has lost 17 houses since Hurricane Camille in 1969, but they stayed because Biloxi is their home. Crawfish boils, oyster shuckings and fun on the balmy, palm-tree dotted coast fill his memories.

“I’m born and raised here,” he said. “I don’t want to leave.”

On Monday, the flashing party lights of a string of casinos lit the Highway 90 waterfront strip. A marquee dangled the possibility of a $250,000 jackpot and a facsimile of a giant guitar on the side of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Biloxi.

Bernie and Mary Donlin were not afraid of the approaching storm. Even with the memories of a family home destroyed in Camille and again during Katrina, they headed into the Boomtown Casino for lunch and to play the slots.

“If we made it through Katrina and Camille, this will just be a pain in the behind,” Bernie, 71, said as the parking lot behind him emptied out.

“I’m not worried,” Mary, 77, added.

Her husband winked. “She knows she’s got me to take care of her.” Holding hands, they headed home.

Crew commander describes relief efforts as six Kanawha first responders remain in Louisiana awaiting second hurricane

Most of the Kanawha County first responders who traveled to assist in Hurricane Laura relief efforts have returned home, but some emergency crew members are still in Louisiana, awaiting a second hurricane set to hit the country’s Gulf Coast.

Six members of the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority’s Special Operations Team are still working in New Orleans, caring for evacuees in a local hotel.

Commander James “Buzz” Mason, who leads the authority’s special operations team, said by phone that the crew is waiting to see what the impact of incoming Hurricane Sally might be. The team could be headed to Mississippi to continue relief efforts, if the damage is significant.

The 18-person special operations team left Charleston on Aug. 28, driving 16 hours before reaching the hurricane relief site in Louisiana. Twelve members returned from that duty last week.

Mason, on his third deployment with the ambulance authority, said Kanawha County’s first responders are no strangers to disaster areas. Emergency crew members have responded in the aftermath of hurricanes Sandy, Rita, Irma, Maria and Florence, among other tragedies.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given the ambulance authority a preferred contractor award, Mason said, which designates Kanawha County’s special operations team as one of the top first responder crews in the United States. It is hoped that, when Kanawha County suffers a crisis, other response teams from across the country will return the favor.

Kanawha County’s crews, which can be mobilized and dispatched to disaster areas in no time, are sought nationwide, Mason said.

“We can make friends with anyone. We’re one of the most accepting cultures, regardless of the demographics of the area; whether it’s rural or urban we just get to work,” he said.

This deployment has had some noticeable differences. A deadly virus is simultaneously wreaking havoc in the United States, creating additional worries during relief efforts.

“You have this stress with COVID-19 and, for the first time, a responder can get sick [as well],” he said. “Those are the mental stressors and the mental health things that we got to help our people with. They’re great about it and nobody has any complaints, but you know, in the back of their heads, it weighs on them.”

The humidity in the Deep South is nothing to play with, either.

“It’s a different kind of heat in the swamps,” said Mason, who led disaster relief efforts over his 24 years in the U.S. Navy before returning to Kanawha County.

The special operations team has worked in Alexandria, one of Central Louisiana’s largest cities; its members responded to Iota, a small town near the southern coast. The crew also worked in Leesville, a town that hugs Louisiana’s border with Texas.

Mason said much of Louisiana is very rural and comparable to West Virginia but that the state’s flat terrain makes miles and miles of hurricane wreckage visible.

“One location we were in, every third pole was knocked down by trees,” he said. “We’ve seen trees snapped off and twisted off at 20 feet up in the air.”

These lines power entire towns, and residents have told Mason that they aren’t expecting electricity again until at least October.

Mason said the ambulance authority recently created a community paramedic program, which trains responders in becoming caretakers for an entire community. That community now is a local New Orleans hotel, where Kanawha County members are providing medication reconciliation, connecting people to dialysis appointments and providing treatment.

“The community paramedic is really paying it forward — it’s a new program in Kanawha County; it’s only about three years old — and they are really taking on the role here where they are caring for the community, and the community happens to be 160 evacuees from Lake Charles,” he said.

The crew members have, thus far, avoided stabbings and other violent incidents that have occurred in the hotel among evacuees, Mason said.

Mason said the deployment has been mostly positive, and the crew has enjoyed the hospitality of Louisianians. One night, a family gifted crew members with a kettle of jambalaya.

The special operations team sponsored one evacuee’s fifth birthday party after a boy told crew members his family had lost their home and belongings to Laura. Crew members Kayla Neil, Trish White, Jeff Broyles and Mason overloaded the boy, named Shane, with toys and birthday treats, purchased with money from their own pockets.

Charleston Christian school defies WV governor’s shutdown order, but Justice doesn’t immediately enforce his own rule

Charleston’s Bible Center School has begun teaching its students in person, despite Kanawha County being orange on West Virginia’s school reopening map and Gov. Jim Justice previously saying neither private nor public schools in orange or red counties may reopen classrooms.

But neither police nor other officials ordered the school to cease what it was doing Monday, despite news station WCHS reporting that morning that the classrooms were open. Justice, during Monday’s tri-weekly news conference, cast doubt on his own ability to enforce his rule.

“I really probably need more guidance from the standpoint of an executive order versus freedom of religion,” Justice said, after a reporter asked how he would enforce the rule.

Meanwhile, the school, according to documents provided to the Gazette-Mail, is requiring parents of students returning in person, and the students themselves, to sign waivers promising not to sue the school if they get sick or die of COVID-19 or incur expenses related to it.

“We/I do hereby accept and assume sole responsibility for any illness acquired by student or parent(s) while at the School or any School function, including possible infection with COVID-19,” the waiver states.

“I believe, in their hearts, they think their kids need to be in school, as I do, too, and they believe that they’re safe and they’re doing the right thing, and I have all the respect in the world for that,” Justice said Monday of the school.

“Now, from the standpoint of going down there and, you know, sending the State Police down there and everything and trying to get it straightened out that way, we’re not going to go that way in the beginning. We’re going to try to go the way where we talk and try to persuade and everything.”

Justice did criticize the Bible Center’s move, though.

“This, we know, exposes us and, absolutely, if we branch out on our own and we start doing things on our own, we’re going to cause — we’re going to cause a lot of heartache to a lot of different people,” he said. “Now, from the standpoint of running down and saying you’re violating the law, well, you know you are and it’s a crying, pitiful shame.”

Bible Center Church Executive Pastor John King, to whom school employees have deferred requests for comment, did not respond to the Gazette-Mail’s questions Monday or Friday.

While a statement on the school’s website said it began offering in-person instruction Monday, a teacher there said it was teaching pre-kindergartners last week.

“Education of our future leaders is one of the most important priorities of society,” the school’s statement said. “If the current generation of leaders do not invest in this priority, the next generation will not possess the necessary skills to address the unprecedented challenges of tomorrow.”

The statement said the school is “taking extraordinary steps to mitigate the risk that in-person education may present. [The school] will continue to update its safety protocols as the pandemic ensues to moderate risk to our students, staff, and their respective families.”

Even if it does again cease instruction, the school still has a “critical care license” from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, like some other private schools and day care facilities. That allows it to have children in its buildings, whether their parents are front-line workers such as nurses or not, but it doesn’t allow the school to teach them in person. So the children may regardless be at risk of infection at the school, without the benefit of in-person instruction.

“This license in no way allows private schools to operate as a school,” a DHHR spokeswoman wrote in an email. “It is strictly a child care license to operate child care services.”