Updated March 15, 2020 at 9:00 p.m.
Although no cases of the novel coronavirus have been found in West Virginia yet, Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday, March 13, all West Virginia schools are to close on Monday as a precaution.
Schools will remain closed until at least Friday, March 27th, according to a joint announcement from the governor’s office and the state Department of Education.
No return date for students has been set, but essential staff, determined by each county board of education, are working Monday through Wednesday to develop plans for students.
Essential personnel includes transportation, custodial staff, and food service staff who are working to ensure child nutrition efforts continue for the over 200,000 students who rely on school meals for their daily nutrition. County boards of education are authorized to use school busses to transport meals to students throughout the duration of the closure.
All teachers, staff, and school service personnel will report to work Thursday, March 19 and Friday, March 20.
County leadership teams are considering several approaches to ensure education continues for students, including distance learning, telecommunication, electronic communication, and traditional paper instructional packets.
The West Virginia National Guard and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture say they are also prepared to support counties however they need.
Updated March 13, 2020 at 5:16 p.m.
The governor said the decision did not come easily, and, in fact, was not made until shortly before the 11 a.m. press conference. Ultimately, he told reporters, he decided closing all public schools was a way to try and get ahead of a probable coronavirus outbreak.
“We’ve got a monster that’s looming, but the monster’s not here,” Justice said. “Every single one of us believes the monster is coming to some degree.”
Justice said one concern is that children who have not been as susceptible to the most dangerous effects of the disease as the elderly, would unwittingly pass the virus to grandparents, older teachers or caregivers.
Officials in Kentucky, Maryland and Ohio, among many other states, have moved to close public schools to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Justice noted even though West Virginia does not yet have any confirmed cases of the new disease, it has a large vulnerable, elderly population.
“The one thing we’ve got in West Virginia that maybe just maybe those states may not have in the magnitude of what we have is the elderly,” he said. “You know we’re an older state, and the elderly is where this monster attacks.”
But closing schools comes with huge challenges. For many kids, especially those who are housing insecure or have been impacted by the opioid epidemic, school is a safe space. Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools, said the state Department of Education is keeping those students in mind.
“It’s where they have structure, it’s where they do have a safe environment,” Burch said. “It’s also where many of them are fed. About 200,000 rely on breakfast and lunch through the school and you put that together with the additional services beyond just the education we offer, our schools are a beacon for them.”
In a Friday news release, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a waiver application from the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition to continue feeding students even though school would not be in session. Burch said they are currently working with the National Guard and other community resources like food pantries on how meals would be distributed.
“Some districts will utilize buses, they can even utilize the bus stops,” Burch said. “Kentucky right now is utilizing a drive through mechanism for families when they can, can actually come and pick up the meals and then we’ll also tap into resources like [West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General James] Hoyer said to utilize others to assist with some of that delivery.”
Students are not the only ones who will be impacted by school closures — working parents are in for a hard time too. When asked if he had instructions for employers across the state, many of whom will have employees impacted by the school closures, Justice called for state and federal support, but didn’t provide many details.
“Our nation and our state is going to have to really step up beyond the call here,” Justice said. “I don't know all the intricacies of how that step up means. But in this situation to where we're basically putting undue hardship on hardships on families, or, or maybe if you're feeling bad, you don't really think you ought to be at work and we're telling you to stay home and then you stay home and you lose a day or five days pay, and you can't pay for your electric bill and whatever like that.”
Water utility American Water and power utilities FirstEnergy Corp. and Appalachian Power said Friday they would suspend service shut offs, at least temporarily, during the outbreak.
One of the criticisms or arguments against closing schools is that kids are going to congregate anyway, said Superintendent Burch. “I have four children of my own,” he said. “I will guarantee you that I will have a text when we finish that says ‘what can we do this evening?’ They’re going to congregate. I think it’s just our job to keep preaching those good messages about if they’re going to be around others are they practicing good hygiene? Are they covering their mouth? Are they washing their hands?”
As for how long schools will stay closed, Justice didn’t give a definite answer — rather saying — “we’ll close the schools as long as we have to close the schools.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.