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.”