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Public school outbreaks in 16 counties have triggered 150 current COVID-19 cases, according to the state Department of Education.

“That is probably, to some degree at least, even expected,” Gov. Jim Justice said. “I mean, we’re now playing ballgames at our schools, we’re now really opened up all across our state, with the exception of one red county [Webster] today.”

The state defines an outbreak as two or more cases among students or staff from separate households within a 14-day period in a single classroom or group. The state doesn’t reveal whether those infected are students or school employees.

In the past two weeks, newspapers and the state have reported coronavirus-related school shutdowns in Berkeley, Boone, Lincoln and Raleigh counties.

In January, Justice pushed to reopen classrooms, except for high schools in counties labeled red on his color-coded school reopening map. The map colors are based very roughly on the spread of COVID-19 across counties, not just within schools.

The West Virginia Board of Education, which has state constitutional power to make different educational decisions than the governor, ordered all counties to reopen classrooms starting for at least a couple days a week in January and four to five days a week starting March 3.

Kanawha County’s school system reopened classrooms five days a week before the state school board mandated such a move.

“We have seen a few more cases,” district spokeswoman Briana Warner said, “however, there has not been a significant change. Our case numbers are generally still at some of the lowest since we began tracking during this school year.”

The state has reported four cases at West Side Middle School, site of Kanawha’s lone outbreak.

The district is tentatively planning outdoor proms in late April and early May at its eight high schools, said George Aulenbacher, Kanawha’s assistant superintendent over high schools and vocational education. Poor weather could move the events indoors. Masks and social distancing would be required.

“Proms are not mandatory, so this is a choice the kids can make,” Aulenbacher said. “So we’re just trying to make the school year as normal as possible for those kids who choose to participate under the safety guidelines we’ve been following all year long.”

The largest outbreak is 28 cases involving extracurricular activities at Meadow Bridge High in Fayette County, according to state officials. Basketball teams there have been affected, Fayette schools Superintendent Gary Hough said. Oak Hill High’s boys and girls team in Fayette have shut down because of a COVID-19 case, he said.

“We never know where that’s coming from, whether it’s internal or external,” Hough said.

No Fayette schools are closed.

The state Education Department’s website shows an outbreak of six cases at Lincoln County’s Ranger Elementary School and three more related to extracurriculars at Duval PreK-8. The latter school, Hamlin PreK-8 and Lincoln County High all were closed Friday, Superintendent Jeff Kelley said. Each school had one active case. He said he hoped all would reopen Monday.

“I’ve not, at this point, kind of had anybody step up and say they thought this uptick was attributed to any one thing,” Kelley said. He noted increased infection rates across the county.

Monongalia County Superintendent Eddie Campbell told The Dominion Post that what likely was the county’s first classroom spread was detected last week at Mountaineer Middle School.

Referring to increased school cases, Justice said: “We need to stay on top of it, and if we get any level that is alarming, I’m sure my medical team and everything will tell me so.”

But he added: “This thing is something we’ve got to live with — we have got to live with and we’ve got to go on with life and we’ve gotta have our kids in school. You know, ballgames are really important to a great many people and, from my standpoint, first and foremost school should trump any kind of ballgame, but at the same time I’m sure a coach and I surely understand the importance of sports to our communities, and our kids and parents and on and on.”

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