Superintendent announced new mask requirement as Delta variant continues to spread

by Erin Beck

Charleston With more kids in brick-and-mortar schools, and the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreading, more Kanawha County kids are contracting the virus, when compared to a similar time period last year. 

School started last year on Oct. 5. By Oct. 20, there were 20 reported cases, according to Briana Warner, communications director for Kanawha schools. By Oct. 31, there were 49 reported cases.

This year, in just the first eight days of school, schools have reported 47 cases to Kanawha schools administration.

What happened? While no study has been conducted, several factors that contribute to COVID-19 spread have changed. 

Last year, state officials required universal masking in schools.  School shutdowns were also common that first month. Vaccines also weren’t yet available.

But while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal masking in schools this year as well, with kids under 12 ineligible for the vaccine and many older kids unvaccinated, state officials left masking decisions up to local school districts for the 2021-2022 school year. 

And Kanawha County school board members voted only to require masks for elementary school students earlier this month, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported at the time.

New mask mandate

Pointing to “an uptick in COVID-19 cases in our community,” Kanawha schools superintendent Tom Williams decided Wednesday to expand the mask requirement to older students. 

As of Wednesday, the schools with the largest number of cases were: Capital High School, 3 cases; George Washington High School, 3 cases; Holz Elementary, 4 cases; Horace Mann Middle School, 4 cases; John Adams Middle School, 5 cases; and South Charleston High School, 4 cases.

On July 1, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department reported no new cases for the first time in about 480 days. The county had 60 active cases at the time. By July 2, the number of active cases in the county had declined to 59 cases. The county reported its first Delta case July 8.

Wednesday, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department reported an increase of 110 cases from the previous day. One additional death was reported of an 84-year-old female who was not fully vaccinated. There were 357 active cases. 

In an interview, Dr. Lisa Costello, assistant professor of pediatrics at West Virginia University School of Medicine and president of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends universal masking in schools, as wearing masks will help kids safely stay in school in-person.

She noted that schools help with meals and social support, and some families lack the support they need to provide educational services at home. Being in-school is important for child mental, emotional and physical health, she said. 

“Our goal as pediatricians is always to try to keep kids safe. And so that’s what our recommendations are based upon, the science, and with the goal to keep kids safe.”

Community cases increasing

COVID-19 cases in the county in a 13-day period at the start of the school year in 2020 increased at roughly the same rate as that same time period this year. The average number of new cases per day extending six prior to the school year, and six days following the start of school was 34.2 in 2020, and 36.3 this year.

Even so, state education officials recommended schools loosen safety regulations this year. Fewer kids will be required to quarantine, and the governor won’t be announcing countywide school shut-downs based on the rate of community spread. And kids haven’t been required to wear masks.

And now, in the seven-day period since school started in Kanawha County, community cases are increasingly more rapidly in the county when compared to last year. 

The average number of new COVID-19 cases in the community over the first seven days of the school year in 2020 was 32.6. The average number of new cases in the community over the first seven days of the school year in 2021 was 46.4.

Contact tracing and quarantines

Health and education officials have said they aim to keep more kids in school in-person.

Last year, students who were within six feet of a diagnosed student were considered “close contacts” who should be quarantined. This year, the CDC reduced that limit to three feet.

There is also no statewide color-coded map dictating countywide school shutdowns. 

Some parents and teachers have worried about additional responsibilities put on teachers and other staff, as well as additional risks for their kids. 

In an email, Warner said Kanawha schools track positive cases “through their day with the help of teachers/coaches/coworkers, seating charts, and any other information available to identify close contacts.”

“The nurses and school administration notify guardians as soon as possible when learning of a case and do so during waking hours,” she wrote. “Our school staff are going above and beyond to make sure that parents are notified, and we’re doing the right thing for student health/safety. 

“When a positive is being reported by a parent or the Health Department at night, we’re finding that staff are showing up at work early enough the next morning to contact trace to the best of their ability and notify families BEFORE the school day starts to minimize exposure. Presently, all of our students in close contact with a positive case requiring a quarantine have been notified, but this changes minute by minute, and we work as quickly as we can.”

She said the school system had no record of the number of students quarantined in the district. 

Multiple cases were reported to John Adams administrators at once Tuesday, Warner said. 

“Our school administrators let us know as quickly as possible if they have a concern about the number of quarantines at their school,” she wrote. “We have heard from (John Adams Middle School) that they have around 90 quarantines, and there are a similar number at Horace Mann Middle School.”

In response to an email, John Adams principal John Moyers said Kanawha County school district requires all questions be sent to Warner.

The CDC also recommends schools offer testing on-site in schools in areas where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, to catch cases early, when they’re asymptomatic, and prevent more spread. 

That hasn’t happened here, but  Dr. Sherri Young, Interim Chief Health Officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the health department would “consider” linking with schools to assist. She said they’ve held several vaccination clinics in schools.  

If anyone in the community is vaccine eligible and has not received the COVID-19 vaccination, now is the time,” she said in an email. “Time is of the essence as we are seeing a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases with the aggressive Delta variant.”

Kanawha County is more protective than some counties in other areas. Along with the mask requirement, it does offer a virtual school option for all students. 

State officials, pointing to worse test scores, had elected not to make a statewide virtual learning program available for elementary school students this year.

Other school districts

Jedd Flowers, a spokesman for Cabell County Schools, said the county is largely following the state education department’s back-to-school guidance. Like Kanawha County, they will post case counts on their website, www.cabellschools.com. They also haven’t planned screening testing events at schools, but have held several vaccination clinics. 

The Herald-Dispatch reports that the Cabell County Board of Education, which had made wearing masks optional for the 2021-22 school year, will meet at 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss and potentially vote on mask requirements.The newspaper also reports that Boone County voted to implement a universal masking requirement, and that Lincoln County voted to implement universal masking when the county is orange or red on the county alert map.

Think KIds WV reached out to several counties scheduled to start Wednesday, but superintendents from Gilmer, Barbour, and Calhoun counties did not respond to questions about student safety protocols.

Christy Day, WV Department of Education spokeswoman, said the department plans to post school outbreaks at https://wvde.us/schooloutbreaks/ beginning on Aug. 25, once more schools are in session.

Erin Beck is our Kids’ Health Correspondent. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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