Gov. Jim Justice got some things right and some things wrong during a news conference concerning the coronavirus on Friday, but there were two things he absolutely nailed.
One was the decision to shut down public schools as West Virginia braces for the virus to hit. Children’s health and safety are of paramount importance, and the fact they could transmit the disease to those who might have more severe reactions is high. Even if the virus turns out to be less serious than expected, it’s better to take the preventative path now than to close down the facilities later, after something as easily spread as coronavirus has ravaged students, teachers and school personnel.
Justice, appearing appropriately somber for such an announcement, also was right when he called it a tough decision. And he explained why in a very poignant manner.
Obviously, education is important, and, in more affluent areas of the country, that might be cited as the biggest factor against closing schools. In West Virginia, the sad reality is that shutting down schools means thousands of children living in poverty will be without the most stable thing in their lives. As Justice said, with uncanny accuracy and empathy, school for these children means two meals a day they might not get otherwise. If home life is tumultuous, school is a place where kids feel safe. In most families, parents or guardians have to work, and school is a reliable form of child care.
State officials assured the news media on Friday they are working on a means to make sure West Virginia children are fed and have access to other vital services the school systems provide.
But it’s also sad, considering the West Virginia Legislature could have passed either of two bills this past session creating a program to coordinate access to food pantries for starving children in times school is not in session. Legislators could have appeared ahead of the curve.
Obviously, such a program would not be up and running mere days after the session ended. The governor might not have even signed such a bill yet. But circumstances have now shown misplaced priorities when these types of measures fall to more politically advantageous and less substantive lawmaking.
Hopefully, whatever is established as a stopgap for the present can be adapted into a program that can function during summer and holiday breaks. West Virginia children, especially those who are in vulnerable situations, need to be reassured that the state and their communities are looking out for them.