A showdown of sorts is looming between public school teachers and Gov. Jim Justice after his announcement that all elementary and middle schools in West Virginia will resume in-person classes by Jan. 19, regardless of COVID-19 risk metrics.
When he made the announcement, Justice and state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch argued that it is safe because they learned from the fall semester that transmission rates among younger schoolchildren are lower, and outbreaks at schools have been minimal.
But the announcement also came as the Department of Health and Human Resources color-coded risk assessment map — a modified version of which was used to determine whether schools may host in-person classes and conduct extracurricular activities — started to turn mostly orange and red. Those are the highest categories of risk. The color codes, which also include lower risk levels of gold, yellow and green, are based on each county’s percentage of positive coronavirus tests or number of cases per capita.
By Tuesday morning, the DHHR map was completely red and orange for the first time since it was created, with 48 of 55 counties at highest-risk red, and seven at orange. The Department of Education version of the map, which still will be used to determine whether high schools are open to in-person classes, subtracts nursing home, jail and university cases, so it could show some counties eligible for in-person learning.
Teachers and school service personnel have some legitimate questions. The map was consistently altered to give counties the easiest path toward continuing in-person learning. Now that formula has been wiped out, because COVID-19 cases have been increasing dramatically. Some teachers wonder about their safety and that of their students. They can hardly be blamed for thinking the governor wants to drop the map because it’s no longer convenient.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said as much in an interview on West Virginia MetroNews, while also questioning the governor’s logic that all West Virginia teachers could get a two-dose vaccine between now and Jan. 19, given that the doses are separated by three to four weeks.
Lee said teachers want to be in the classroom with their students, and ceded the governor’s points that in-person learning is vital for education and, in more than a few cases, for the well-being of students with a turbulent home life. While adding online learning is not ideal, he questioned Gov. Justice’s blanket assessment that distance learning has been a complete failure.
Lee mainly wanted to know why, with COVID-19 cases rising and a new strain of the virus hitting the U.S., officials chose to abandon a system that kept outbreaks down. West Virginia had its highest single-day COVID-19 death total, 46, on Tuesday, putting total deaths at nearly 1,450, the DHHR reported. The state now has a cumulative case count that should hit 100,000 sometime this week (90% of which have been recorded since around the time schools resumed), along with more than 27,000 active cases.
Could Justice be facing the third teacher and school service personnel work stoppage in his time as governor? It’s possible, but, right now, it doesn’t look like things will go that far.
Lee said some sort of hybrid model, gradually phasing in-person learning back to full-time, might be necessary. With all of the backlash to Justice’s plan, the governor might have a new one sometime before Jan. 19. The governor also emphasized that local school districts have ultimate control, so it’s likely some will opt out of in-person learning, even when the state says it’s OK to resume. Multiple school districts, including Kanawha County, canceled in-person classes at points in the fall even when the map cleared them, citing the health risk.
Whatever the solution, there will be plenty of back-and-forth in the days to come. Some uncertainty and confusion is to be expected but, hopefully, an agreement is reached that considers the health of students, teachers and staff first, while also meeting the goal of educating West Virginia’s children.