WV education officials: no mask mandate, no map, more local control
by Erin Beck, Kids’ Health Correspondent
West Virginia’s back-to-school plan leaves most COVID-19-related decisions up to local districts.
No statewide mask mandate. No statewide virtual school option for elementary school students. No online map dictating countywide shutdowns.
During a press conference at the West Virginia Capitol complex in Charleston Wednesday, West Virginia schools superintendent Clayton Burch and other education officials emphasized that during the 2021-2022 year — the third school year affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — school districts that want stricter regulations will be charged with enacting those measures themselves. They encouraged local school officials to make those decisions with local health departments.
No mask mandate
“I’m still getting asked questions,” Burch said. “Will there be statewide mandates for masks and things. And again, I will reiterate: No.”
He said the West Virginia Department of Education never made the call on the previous mask mandate.
“That was under the governor’s executive order,” he said, referencing Gov. Jim Justice. “We simply followed that. It was a medical and a DHHR decision.”
Justice has also said there will be no mask mandate.
Education officials also released a document, called School Recovery & Guidance for Fall 2021, that describes their plans.
The guidance notes that the “most effective mitigation strategy is the vaccination for those eligible to receive it.” Children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine.
Amid a nationwide rise in cases of the more transmissible Delta variant, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal masking in schools in order to safely keep kids in the classroom, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended a return to indoor masking in areas with “substantial or high transmission,” even for those who are full vaccinated due to a small chance of infection. West Virginia currently has substantial COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC, while most states, including some surrounding states, have already returned to high transmission.
Burch said that frequent changes from virtual to in-person school last year was hard on students, and that 52,000 students didn’t attend brick-and-mortar school last year at all.
“So this year, knowing what we know from a pandemic, the goal was to be consistent,” he said. “The goal was to make it safe for more children to be in person.”
Burch said that state law requires that every county offer virtual education for grades six through 12, and that some counties have decided to continue offering elementary school virtual education. But he predicted that most counties won’t offer it.
“The reason there’s not a statewide elementary virtual option is because of how poorly it went,” he said. “Not only do we have the data from the teachers to show it, we now have the testing data to show it.”
He said that data would be released at a board meeting next week.
He also said kids did better when their teacher led them in online schooling, compared to when they worked at their own pace.
“Thankfully, the Legislature has looked at some other options,” he said. “We are launching the HOPE Scholarship. That is through the State Treasurer’s Office.”
The “Hope Scholarship” is a reference to the state’s new educational savings account program.
Shutdowns and quarantines
Education officials also said they expected quarantines to be less disruptive this year.
“We encourage you to get vaccinated,” said Bernie Dolan, executive director of the WV Secondary Schools Activities Commission. “Because we know that if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to sit in quarantine. And if you think about athletics last year, most of our issues dealt around quarantine.”
When kids are exposed to COVID-19 at school, only children who were within three feet of the person with the diagnosis, and who were not wearing masks, will have to be quarantined.
Burch clarified at the press conference that kids who are vaccinated and not wearing masks at the time of exposure will also not have to be quarantined, but it was unclear whether they’d have to prove they were vaccinated by showing their card, or whether their word would be enough. A Department of Education spokeswoman also didn’t respond to a request for clarification.
There will be no statewide, color-coded map updated on a weekly basis, like last year, that shows whether kids have school that week. Those decisions will be made locally, officials said, and in some cases, schools may close but not entire districts.
“This board historically, over the last few years has tried to emphasize local decision-making as much as possible,” said Tom Campbell, vice president of the state school board. “It’s a very diverse state — very different needs.”
Good ventilation can help reduce the risk of COVID-19. Ventilation wasn’t mentioned in the guidance, but Burch said some schools plan to spend federal relief funding on improvements.
The document doesn’t mention testing. The CDC recommends that screening testing in schools be offered at least weekly for students who are not fully vaccinated in communities with moderate, substantial, or high transmission and for teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated regardless of the levels of community transmission.
- The guidance encourages school districts to ensure schools are being cleaned thoroughly
- It encourages good handwashing and coughing/sneezing etiquette.
- Whether large gatherings and appropriate social distancing measures will be held will be left up to local control. School districts should make those decisions with local public health officials.
- Schools are required to have designated, supervised areas to isolate symptomatic students with suspected or confirmed infections; the guidance says after they’re sent there, they will be sent home.