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Currently, West Virginia has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation. This is a direct consequence of our last-place vaccination rate of 40%. We have easily exceeded all the grim measures of the outbreak so far. Our hospitals are at crisis-level capacity. If the words have any meaning left at all, we are living in the midst of a public health emergency.

Keeping kids in school means keeping kids healthy. The number one way to accomplish this is to promote vaccination among students, faculty and staff. West Virginia law requires students to be vaccinated from 11 highly-contagious and potentially debilitating or deadly diseases. One vaccine for COVID-19 has gained full FDA approval and others will surely follow. Despite mass misinformation, vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective. Requiring vaccination seems like the most logical and expedient way to ensure that children will be able to remain in the classroom.

This, however, would not address our Pre-K through sixth grade students. Aged 5-11, they are not currently able to gain the essential protection that vaccination provides. Simply put, they don’t have a choice. Without this protection how could we protect our youngest students from the illness and harm of this pandemic? We require masking in all indoor settings, and we reinstate the strict social distancing practices that made classroom instruction possible last year.

This is how nearly all West Virginia school systems have decided to protect the health and education of our children.

Putnam County Schools has declined to implement or enforce meaningful social distancing or masking procedures. Mask wearing is far too low, extra-curricular activities are in full swing and unmasked and unvaccinated faculty and staff are in regular close contact with students. Action taken by the Putnam County Board of Education at the Sept. 20 meeting purported to implement a “universal masking policy” to avoid contentious quarantining standards is a charade that the state Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Resources, and Gov. Jim Justice must reject.

This laissez-faire approach has already shown real harm to our students. George Washington Elementary School was forced to temporarily close. One hundred and two outbreaks have been documented in Putnam County schools since the start of class less than one month ago. Currently, 833 students are quarantined. The county has had a startling seven-day infection rate of 685.55 cases per 100,000 residents. Five to 11-year-olds have an infection rate of more than 1,512 cases per 100,000 residents. This is 220% higher than the county population as a whole and 170% higher than the state average for the age group.

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There are those that say that vaccination and masking are a personal choice that must be made by the individual or the parents. Firstly, we have decided to the contrary for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, and hepatitis b. Second, advocates of "personal choice" forget that our youngest students cannot choose the protection of vaccination and are at the mercy of their grownups. We must always remember that our choices have consequences and that we rarely bear the burden alone.

Choosing to be unvaccinated and unmasked carries significant risk. Unvaccinated individuals account for 93% of COVID-19 cases and 81% of hospitalizations in West Virginia. If this burden only fell on those choosing the greater risks, there would be little to say. Yet those who remain unmasked and unvaccinated have fueled community spread causing the significant spike in cases for the captive population of young students who cannot be vaccinated. This directly threatens their health and learning.

Leaders of our state have declined to make sweeping, state-wide public health orders to protect students. The vast majority of local school systems have made the right call, making the most basic public health standards of distancing and masking mandatory. The Putnam County Board of Education has failed in its duty to safeguard the health of our children. It is negligent to not reimplement strict public health best-practices in our schools. They are gambling with the health and learning of our kids.

Before attending the Sept. 20 meeting of the Putnam County Board of Education I had thought that they were bowing to the drooling threats of the mob of "personal choice." Frankly, after watching board members interact cordially and sympathetically with raving conspiracy theorists in the audience, they are not just bowing to the mob, they are having a gleeful Pavlovian response to it.

In the words of Dr. Tom Locke, Deputy Public Health Officer for Jefferson County, I would offer, “Remember: Choice has consequence. If your personal choice harms someone else, you are responsible for that harm." He’s talking to you Robert Cunningham, Bruce Knell, Wade Neal and Christian Wells.

John Butterworth is the parent of two Putnam County Schools elementary students.

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