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West Virginia education officials now say schools that require masks for all students and employees don’t have to quarantine children or adults who were in close contact with someone with COVID-19.

Quarantining is no longer required when both the infected person and the people in contact with the infected person were wearing masks — no matter how close they were, no matter how long. And county school systems don’t have to “contact trace” anymore to identify these contacts to be quarantined. The infected person would still have to quarantine.

The West Virginia Department of Education’s August guidance had said students should quarantine if they were within 3 feet of an infected person, even if both were masked.

The department amended the guidance Friday, and state Board of Education members didn’t object to it when it was explained to them Wednesday.

Education department officials said the Department of Health and Human Resources recommended the change. That department’s top spokeswoman, Allison Adler, wrote in an email that the state epidemiologist “worked with the WV Department of Education to provide guidance.”

But Adler didn’t say if the education department diverged from the epidemiologist’s recommendations.

State schools Deputy Superintendent Michele Blatt said that, even in a county school system that mandates masks most of the time, quarantining would still be required if the close contact occurred while the individuals were unmasked. This kind of contact might happen while eating in a cafeteria or during extracurricular activity, Blatt said.

The exemption also only applies for schools with a “universal” mask mandate. That means a requirement for all, whether they’re vaccinated or not and regardless of the county’s hue on the state’s color-coded COVID-19 spread map.

Blatt said 29 of the state’s 55 county school systems already have universal mask mandates. A further 10 require masks depending on their map color, according to the department’s tally.

“The main thing is, we know the benefits and the importance of in-person learning,” Blatt said of the reason for the changed guidance. “We also know that, when students are quarantined, they’re exposed throughout their communities.”

There is no statewide mask mandate for private businesses.

Blatt also said local health departments, which are involved with contact tracing, want “to put a priority on calling those that are actually positive and direct, immediate family members or people that they were most in contact with.”

It’s unclear how many West Virginia students have been quarantined since schools started opening last month.

The education department hasn’t been asking county school systems to regularly report their quarantine numbers. Kanawha County, the state’s most-populous school system, doesn’t report these numbers.

“They’re just too overwhelmed,” Blatt said of the school systems. “I’m not asking them to collect another piece of information. They’re just trying to keep schools open and take care of the students.”

Blatt said she had asked some counties, including Kanawha, for one-time quarantine data at the DHHR’s request.

Kanawha County reported about 2,000 students simultaneously in quarantine as of Aug. 27. Although this fall’s enrollment numbers aren’t yet available, Kanawha averaged about 25,200 students annually over the past three years.

And that 2,000 didn’t reflect all the students who were out on that day related to COVID-19. Capital High School, with an average enrollment of 1,200 students, was shut down that week after a COVID-19 outbreak was confirmed there, but only those Capital students officially in quarantine were included in the 2,000 tally, according to Kanawha district spokeswoman Briana Warner.

As of Aug. 27, Kanawha had a universal mask requirement, but the requirement was only a week old and the old quarantine guidance was still in effect.

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Gary Hough said his county implemented a mask requirement this week, because of the changed guidance.

Hough said his county, from the Aug. 16 start of Fayette’s school year through Tuesday, had quarantined 788 students. Fayette has averaged about 5,900 students annually over the past three years.

“Those are kids that have to be out of school,” Hough said, “and what this does is permit us not to have to quarantine.”

When asked if the new decision to require masks was completely unrelated to making Fayette schools safer, Hough said, “I think it makes it safer, yeah — or they wouldn’t have given us that guidance.”

Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or ryan.quinn@hdmediallc.com. Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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