Kanawha County, West Virginia’s most-populous school system, is now allowed to reopen classrooms that have been closed since March amid the pandemic.
Boone, Harrison and Upshur counties are now alone among the state’s 55 counties in not being allowed to offer in-person instruction in public schools. Gov. Jim Justice already allowed private schools throughout the state to reopen their doors if they followed certain requirements.
Kanawha’s school system plans to reopen classrooms starting Monday, but families who opted for in-person learning will have their children on a “blended model,” with a couple days in-person and a couple learning online, for at least two weeks.
Students who opted for online-only will continue with that.
One of Justice’s most-recent changes to the color-coded school reopening map allowed for Kanawha’s reopening.
Justice has repeatedly made the map less stringent, departing from safety recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute and allowing more school systems to reopen.
The colors on West Virginia’s map had been based on the average number of new daily COVID-19 cases in a county, adjusted for population.
If the map dubbed a county orange or red, it was prohibited from having in-person instruction or athletics games.
But about three weeks ago, Justice announced he would allow counties in those colors to reopen classrooms and start playing if they got their proportion of positive cases among total tests administered to below 5%. Justice then urged people to get tested, even if they did not have COVID-19 symptoms.
Kanawha met that below-5% criterion starting Thursday and continued to do so on Friday. On Saturday, when the state regularly releases the official version of the map that has consequences for the upcoming week, Kanawha was colored gold.
In gold, classrooms are allowed to reopen, but face coverings are mandatory for students in grades 3-12. Athletics can also resume, but only for games against other schools in the county or schools in other gold counties.
Kanawha would still be orange if this 5% criterion weren’t added.
Jay O’Neal, a teacher at Kanawha’s West Side Middle, has called for more support and precautions for schools to be safe amid the pandemic. He’s also called for classroom reopenings to be delayed until the new daily case numbers look better.
Regarding the map, he said, “Teachers will be prepared to do what they need to do. But the worry is, is this really an accurate reflection of how safe things are in Kanawha County right now?”
He noted that, looking at active cases of COVID-19, a measure the state map doesn’t take into account, “Kanawha has 10% of the state’s population but 24% of active cases right now.”
In Kanawha’s blended model, generally, students with last names starting with A-L will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, and continue the currently ongoing eLearning for the rest of the week. Those with last names starting with M-Z will eLearn Mondays through Wednesdays and attend school in person Thursdays and Fridays.
The school system said individual schools will send parents information on how it works in their specific schools.
Kanawha schools Superintendent Tom Williams said last month that too many families want their children in classrooms to have sufficient social distancing if the county returns to a regular five-day in-person school week.
Kanawha Board of Education members may opt to stay on the blended model for more than two weeks. The board meets 4 p.m. Monday at the school system central office, 200 Elizabeth St. E., on Charleston’s East End.
“Re-entry discussion” is on the meeting agenda.