The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston isn’t accepting Gov. Jim Justice’s offer that private and religious schools may reopen classrooms in orange counties if students and staff are tested initially for the coronavirus.
Tim Bishop, spokesman for the diocese, gave multiple reasons for the decision. Among them, he questioned whether the Roman Catholic schools would have to pay for the testing, and he opposed forcing employees and students to be tested.
“That’s a decision that should be made by the parent of those students,” Bishop said, “and not the administrators of the school forcing that child to get a test.”
Bishop said the diocese has five schools that aren’t allowed to offer in-person instruction because their counties are orange on the governor’s color-coded school reopening map.
Those five are Sacred Heart Grade School, Charleston Catholic High and St. Francis of Assisi School in Kanawha County; St. Francis Central Catholic School in Monongalia County; and Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School in Fayette County.
Averaging 15 or more new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents puts a county in orange, banning in-person instruction for nonspecial-education students. A county has to get below that 15 daily average, or get its proportion of positive cases among total tests administered below 5%, to advance from orange.
Justice’s exemption, which he debuted Wednesday, allows private and religious schools in orange counties to reopen classrooms if they agree to the prereopening testing and agree to other, yet-unspecified requirements.
Public schools in orange counties are not being offered the same chance to reopen. Public schools also were not offered free testing for all their students and employees.
The governor, in a Wednesday afternoon news release, said the free testing for private and religious schools was being funded by federal pandemic relief funds from the CARES Act.
“Are we sure that’s legal?” Bishop asked, regarding CARES dollars being spent on private schools. He questioned whether the Catholic schools would ultimately be stuck with the bill.
Justice’s news release on the exemption said that, for schools to qualify, they must “enter into an agreement with the State of West Virginia regarding testing and safety protocols prior to resuming in-person instruction.”
The release said several private and Christian schools have “agreed to continue to follow all school-related safety procedures, such as the mandatory wearing of face coverings by students and staff.”
Spokesmen for the governor did not respond Thursday when asked if all future schools that use the exemption will be required to make their students and employees wear masks or follow other safety procedures.