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Education

Justice Administration Targets Sept. 8 Start Date To Reopen West Virginia Schools

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Gov. Jim Justice says his administration expects to reopen West Virginia schools later than usual this fall because of the coronavirus. That announcement comes despite the Trump administration pushing states to reopen schools as soon as possible.

In a virtual news briefing held Wednesday, Justice said he and state Superintendent Clayton Burch plan to reopen classrooms Sept. 8. Schools were closed in mid-March, although remote learning continued through the end of the academic year in June. 

Justice said he wants kids to return to school, but given an ongoing spike in the number of coronavirus cases in the state, reopening any sooner would not be safe. In Wednesday’s briefing, Justice announced the state’s daily positive test rate has surpassed 5 percent.

According to numbers released Wednesday morning, West Virginia saw its highest number of new cases over a 24-hour period, with state health officials reporting 154 new cases from Tuesday to Wednesday. 

“We do not know the level of exposure today that we would be putting our kids, our teachers, our service personnel and all on and on and on,” Justice said. “And, absolutely with that, I can assure you — beyond any doubt — that I am not going to move until I am absolutely as sure as I can possibly be that our kids are going to be safe — that our absolute teachers and service personnel and our parents are going to be safe.”

When Justice reluctantly closed schools in March, he cited concerns for elderly teachers and school workers as the primary reason for closure. 

County school boards across the state have been debating plans on how schools will operate once they have resumed in-person classes. Child advocacy organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have said “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

They argue remote learning would further disadvantage students in precarious living situations, reduce referrals for abuse and neglect and take away a child’s access to healthy meals, among other concerns.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in mid-June calls for temporary school dismissals if there is a substantial spread of COVID-19 within the community and, in cases of mild to moderate community transmission, modifying classes where students are in close contact, staggering arrival and dismissal times and enforcing social distancing.

Justice said Superintendent Burch and education and public health officials have determined schools could reopen now if needed. But, the governor said the more information he can get and the further back he can push a start date, the better off the state will be in combating the virus. 

“It is preposterous to think that we can be going back to school, you know in two or three weeks with the information that we have right here,” Justice said. 

This week, President Trump vowed to put pressure on governors reluctant to reopen schools amid the pandemic. Justice pushed back on Trump but did give the president a nod in doing so. 

“I love our president and I love all the great stuff that he's doing and I hope and pray to God above that he will be reelected and will continue on the path that we're continuing on,” Justice said. “But, in this situation, here I've got to look out first and foremost, for the kids, the teachers, the service personnel, all those that are involved from right on down to the parents and everybody else involved with our kids.”

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ reported Wednesday morning the state has confirmed 3,615 cases of the coronavirus. The agency says 95 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.

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