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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

W.Va. House Votes To Ban School Mask Rules

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Perry Bennett
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WV Legislative Photography
Del. Jordan Maynor, R- Raleigh, speaks to a bill he introduced.

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Tuesday that would roll back masking requirements in public K-12 schools.

Local school boards currently make masking rules for their districts. All counties have required their students to wear masks at some point in the pandemic.

House Bill 4071 would bar any school or public officials from making students wear masks.

“Teachers and constituents in my district brought this to me. They told me, they said, ‘Jordan, we're having a hard time teaching what we need to teach with these masks on. Our students are not learning as well with these masks on’,” said Del. Jordan Maynor, R-Raleigh, who sponsored the bill. “And quite frankly, they told me it's pretty hypocritical that we're letting folks tackle each other on the football field, box each other out on a basketball court, and let fans roam the stands with no masks on at school events.”

The bill also says students would no longer have to quarantine unless they test positive for COVID-19, and no student would have to test if they show no symptoms, like a cough or fever. Students have had to stay home from school during the pandemic for sitting next to classmates that have tested positive. This has left classrooms half empty at times.

Democrats opposing the bill said it would take away public health tools that may be necessary if and when COVID-19 cases begin to surge again.

“This is about local control and allowing an elected body on the county level, our school boards, who also have to answer to the voters, allowing them more maneuverability.” Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said. “In February of 2020…people were saying it was a hoax. Well, obviously it was not. So maybe we ought to think twice before reacting and question some of our decisions here.”

One delegate questioned if masks work. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who regularly wear a cloth mask are 53 percent less likely to catch the coronavirus. Those odds rise to 83 percent for those who regularly wear N95 or KN95 masks.

The West Virginia Department of Education declined to comment.

The House passed the bill in a 80-16 vote largely along party lines. The bill now heads to the Senate and will ultimately need Gov. Jim Justice’s signature. Justice has supported local school districts, not the Department of Education or any other state official, in deciding what’s best regarding masks.

The governor’s office declined to comment, saying Justice would make his stance known during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing.

The House also passed House Bill 4012, which would bar state universities and colleges from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for enrollment.

“None of our public colleges and universities have mandated the vaccine for their campus communities,” said West Virginia’s Chancellor of Higher Education Sarah Armstrong Tucker. “Our public colleges and universities have done a tremendous job of encouraging their students and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while also providing ample opportunities for them to access the vaccine on campus. Because of their great work, case numbers have remained low across higher education institutions statewide.”

HB 4012 also says state and local agencies can’t ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination. It’s unlikely any agencies or offices do so right now. The bill says the same would go for hospitals. Hospitals already treat patients and allow visitors regardless of vaccination status.

“To the best of our knowledge, none of the hospitals in West Virginia are requiring such a thing,” said West Virginia Hospital Association President Jim Kaufman. “Instead, we're actually working with our community to actually ensure they have access to care and treating all patients and trying to get things back to normal as much as possible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said West Virginia Wesleyan College required its students to get the vaccine. The school repealed that requirement last Fall.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler

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