Public school officials in West Virginia do not all plan to heed the governor’s call to open classroom doors in slightly more than a week.
Several county school systems, including Harrison County, have announced they will not fully reopen Jan. 19, when Gov. Jim Justice plans for public schools to resume classes in person.
A spokeswoman for Kanawha County, the state’s most populous district, said officials plan to comply but will consult with local health officials. School officials in Cabell and Mason counties also said they plan to comply.
School workers have been petitioning local county boards of education to reject the governor’s recommendation. COVID-19 vaccines for school employees older than 50 began Thursday. A schedule for younger workers still hasn’t been released. Those who have received a shot will need a second one a few weeks later.
Justice said during a Friday afternoon news conference that waiting to fully vaccinate all school staff would push the restart of in-person learning to mid-February.
“I know it’s not perfect,” Justice said. “But we need to be back in school.”
Later that afternoon, West Virginia Board of Education President Miller Hall announced he will recommend to that panel “that counties be permitted to continue blended learning models until school personnel have been fully vaccinated.”
Blended learning models offer students fewer than five days a week of in-person instruction. Instead, separate groups of students alternate in-person and online learning days, reducing the number of students in a building simultaneously.
“This endorsement will not include remote learning models,” Hall’s news release said. Remote learning refers to online or other distance education.
Hall didn’t return requests for comment.
While the governor has said his call to reopen was a strong recommendation, the state Board of Education, which has constitutional power over schools, could seek to mandate at least some in-person classes starting Jan. 19.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, which is under the state board’s control, wrote in an email that if the board “determines action is necessary, it will be discussed during the January 13, 2021, meeting. All discussion regarding this matter will be reserved for that meeting.”
If the state board votes to prohibit county schools from offering only remote learning, and a district challenges that decision, “the state board is probably going to win that showdown,” said West Virginia University law professor Joshua Weishart, who specializes in education law and policy.
“In the hierarchy of authority, it’s higher,” Weishart said of the state board. “And it’s a constitutional actor, whereas the counties are creatures of statute [state law].”
Whether to return to classroooms should be a local decision, said Fred Albert, president of the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers union.
“It’s our members who know what’s best for their own schools and their communities,” he said.
The West Virginia School Board Association, which includes members of education boards in all 55 state counties, will await an executive order from the governor before responding, said Howard O’Cull, the group’s executive director.
“Then, as an organization, we may take a stance or we may leave that up to counties that are already doing things on their own,” O’Cull said. “I think there are a lot of people who are waiting to get clarification before a lot of things are done.”
Brian Abraham, Justice’s chief of staff, said he expects an executive order on reopening to be filed early this week.
School Board Association President Pat H. Murphy, a Berkeley County Board of Education member, said his county plans to heed the governor’s call. But he said he is concerned and noted local school unions recently urged his county board to wait for vaccinations to be completed.
“The problem is the fear amongst not only our employees but also the community,” he said.
After Justice made his call for reopening, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch cited a letter from “all 55” county superintendents supporting more in-person learning.
The letter was signed only by Preston County Superintendent Steve Wotring, president of the county superintendents association. The missive criticizes Justice’s color-coded map, which forced classrooms — not bars, restaurants nor others — to close based on overall county rather than school infection rates.
Wotring wrote that the map “served as a starting point for our state but, there is now ample evidence that the measurement of community infection spread is significantly divergent from the spread of the virus documented in our schools.”
Justice threw out the map system for schools, except for high schools in counties at the highest level of risk.
Roane County Superintendent Richard Duncan wrote that his county plans to follow the governor’s call — with an exception: If his county is color-coded red, the highest risk level, learning for all grades will be remote.