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West Virginia public school officials on Wednesday released back-to-school guidance for students and staff, including new protocols for quarantining, masking and prevention measures.

The most important difference from last year: when a student who is fully vaccinated is exposed to someone who later tests positive for COVID-19, they will not have to quarantine for contact tracing. If a student is unvaccinated but is wearing a mask when they were exposed to a person who later tests positive, they will not have to quarantine. Only students who are unvaccinated and were unmasked at the time of exposure will have to quarantine for contact tracing, State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said during a news conference Tuesday.

The number of virus mitigation strategies in schools has increased from six to seven, Burch said, because of a new No. 1. The most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is if everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated is fully vaccinated, Burch said.

Cleaning, disinfecting, and hand hygiene will remain required mitigation strategies. The state will also require localities to continue evaluating large gatherings outside of schools, developing plans in consultation with local public health officials regarding school-based or community events.

The state is giving local boards of education more flexibility this coming year, allowing counties to implement its own rules for mask wearing and social distancing. On Monday, the Kanawha County School Board voted to allow children in sixth through 12th grade to choose whether to wear a mask, while requiring them for everyone in elementary schools.

“Face coverings is a recommendation, especially for those who are not vaccinated,” Burch said of the state’s position.

Gov. Jim Justice has not yet called for a mask mandate in schools, saying it would be too politically divisive to do so.

The color-coded school reopening map — which subjected parents and children to spending Saturday nights waiting for the weekly update to see if they would be in school or have the chance to play sports the following week — will not be making a return, Burch said. The Department of Health and Human Resources’ COVID-19 map will only be used by counties to monitor upticks in cases, and it will not have authority to close schools.

Bernie Dolan, executive director for the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, said getting vaccinated will greatly decrease the number of game and practice cancellations this coming year.

“If you think about athletics last year, most of our issues dealt around quarantine, not necessarily the virus itself,” he said. “With the vaccination you don’t have to quarantine, and I think we’ll see more teams being able to play, and I don’t think we’ll see whole counties being shut down anymore, or at least very often.”

Burch said county boards will have more authority this year to tailor shutdowns and quarantining to the affected schools and classrooms, rather than having one school’s outbreak shut down an entire county.

“Oftentimes we saw countywide shutdowns when it wasn’t necessary,” Burch said.

Unlike last year, Burch said he expects instructional days missed due to COVID-19 will be made up at the end of the school year.

Counties will still be offering virtual schooling options for children in sixth through 12th grade, Burch said, but the state will not be implementing virtual schooling options for students in elementary schools. He said this is because data showed online schooling just did not work for a majority of young children.

Justice also announced Wednesday that a state vaccination campaign will give $50,000 to four high schools, four middle schools and four elementary schools who have the highest school-wide rates of vaccinations after the first week of October. The top private school at each level will be one of the four schools selected, Burch said.

State officials stressed that monitoring the social and emotional wellness of children will be emphasized as a top priority this school year, given all they have been through in the last 17 months.

Joe Severino is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at 304-348-4814. Follow @jj_severino on Twitter.

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