Remember the map — well, maps — everyone was concerned with throughout the first half of the school year? The color-coded maps that determined the level of risk and likelihood of COVID-19 spread in each West Virginia county and that — in a special edition on Saturdays — determined who would be going to school in person and be able to participate in school sports?
Forget it. It was confusing, and very 2020. West Virginia is moving in a new direction in the new year — unless, that is, you’re in high school.
Many schools across the state were set to reopen on Jan. 4, and whether or not that would be in-person would’ve been determined by that pesky map. It’s a bit fuzzy whether that can still happen if the map allows it, but Gov. Jim Justice proclaimed during a briefing Wednesday that all elementary and middle schools are going back to in-person learning on Jan. 19, regardless of what the map says. High-schoolers still have to pay attention to the map. Also, winter high school sports, which had been delayed until Jan. 11, have now been pushed back to a start date of March 1.
Still kind of confusing, isn’t it?
The decision was likely made because, going by the Department of Health and Human Resources map, all of West Virginia’s 55 counties, save one, are in higher- and highest-risk orange or red for COVID-19 infection. There are no counties in gold or yellow.
Calhoun County is in lowest-risk green. So, going by that, Calhoun would be the only county going to in-person learning if school resumed Wednesday.
Then again, that’s not entirely accurate, because the school map that comes out on Saturdays pulls out cases from nursing homes, jails and universities, counting them as only a single case. That map hasn’t been updated since public schools went into Christmas break. So who knows what it will show? Perhaps much of the same, given the precipitous climb in cases and deaths across the state.
So, the governor is saying to heck with all of it, if you’re not in high school. His reasoning is that distance learning has failed (it’s probably less effective, but it’s unclear where Justice’s information is coming from), students at risk of abuse or neglect are more at risk if they’re at home (hard to argue that point, but putting them at risk of spreading a deadly virus also seems bad) and that schools simply are not a breeding ground for COVID-19. Justice pointed to the low number of school outbreaks as proof, but, again, it’s important to remember that no one is in school right now.
All of this would be much less confusing if Justice would simply cede one point: His administration designed a color-coded mapping system that they thought would allay fears and allow schools to remain open, but it eventually failed, because they couldn’t predict how bad this would get, and even all of the tweaks and leniency built into the map was overrun.
West Virginia will eclipse 85,000 total COVID-19 cases by Thursday. Those numbers didn’t exceed 10,000 until late August.
Pushing the start of winter sports back again was the right thing to do. Vaccines are coming and circulating, and Justice says he has a plan to get teachers vaccinated. But this is a two-dose vaccine, with those doses separated by several weeks. Given the current trajectory, it is doubtful that case numbers — or the risk of spread — will be significantly better by Jan. 19. State officials say the spread in schools is lower, but that was under the old system, when schools shut down if case levels got too high.
What probably will happen is that school districts will make their own decisions based on the data, as some did by going remote even when the map said they could go in-person. Going back to in-person classes regardless of what the metrics say is dicey.