West Virginia public and private schools won’t reopen until Sept. 8, Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday during his daily COVID-19 briefing.
A state Department of Education spokeswoman said that will be the start date for students, and “counties can bring teachers back prior to that date.”
Many school workers across the nation have expressed health concerns about returning.
Kanawha County, the state’s most populous school system, had scheduled an Aug. 10 start date for students long before the pandemic struck.
Aside from the mandated delay until Sept. 8, county school systems will still be given wide latitude on exactly how they want to reopen, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said Wednesday.
This could include a mix of in-person and online classes, but Burch said “most counties have told me they want to come back five days a week.”
The state Department of Education also posted Wednesday at wvde.us/covid19 expanded and updated school reopening recommendations and mandates.
The document stresses that the rules and advice from the department, and from the governor and health officials, could change, including before and during the school year.
Among the department’s mandates: “face coverings are required of all staff when they cannot provide instruction in a socially distanced manner” and “unless medically waived, students grades 3 and above are required to wear face coverings when outside of their core classroom group or in congregant areas.”
For middle and high schoolers, face coverings are required “in congregant areas and in classrooms if they are not in their core groups and/or social distancing cannot be maintained.”
Also, cafeterias can’t exceed 50% of their regular capacity, and on buses there can only be two students per seat unless they live with one another. Face coverings are only recommended on buses, not required. It’s unclear whether the department’s mandates will also apply to private schools, in addition to the Sept. 8 date that applies to all.
Justice Wednesday noted the state’s spiking number of COVID-19 cases.
“It’s preposterous to think we could be going back to school in two, three weeks with the information we have here,” he said.
“Our cases [are] exploding to the upside. Absolutely, if we were to rush this and go back to school in two or three weeks, in my opinion, it’s the wrong decision because we don’t know, we just don’t know what’s going to happen. We have to buy some time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has written that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Schools are critical not just for education, but for socializing and providing free health care, therapy, meals and child care for working parents, and for detecting abused, neglected and suicidal children.
President Donald Trump has also pushed for schools to reopen.
State school board member Debra Sullivan asked the Education Department Wednesday to gather data on possible pandemic-induced teacher shortages.
“We have young teachers and we have teachers who are nearing retiring,” Sullivan said. “So I’m just wondering if we’re going to experience more teacher shortages this coming school year that we don’t even know about yet.”
Burch said he’s very concerned.
“Some of our best teachers in the state are at that age and to lose them would just be a blow to the state and I think a blow to our children as well as our service personnel,” he said. “So I do think we need to do everything we can to work with our teachers to make it safe to make accommodations to try to keep them engaged in the learning process as much as possible.”
“We could have an increase in students enrolled in virtual school — is that an option for some of our teachers to switch to?” Burch suggested.