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In this summer-long radio series, West Virginia Public Broadcasting explored how the state is tackling the learning loss and social-emotional needs of students following the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Each week in summer 2021, WVPB shared a new story or conversation highlighting some of the top questions and concerns in education.

W.Va. School Officials Say Masking This Fall Will Be Left Up To Local Districts

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This week in our summer education radio series “Closing the COVID Gap,” we spotlight the latest news for K-12 schools in West Virginia.

State officials announced Wednesday that there will not be a statewide mask mandate for schools this fall -- even as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surges throughout the country. Local school districts will make their own rules on masks.

The announcement was made at a much-anticipated press conference with Gov. Jim Justice and state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch.

The governor made it clear -- a mask mandate will not be issued for K-12 schools in West Virginia -- at this time.

“I am not ready whatsoever to issue a mandate,” said Justice. “But absolutely, I'm gonna leave a tremendous amount of that decision to the locals.”

Justice said this could change, depending on COVID-19 case numbers. But as of now, masks are optional for schools.

Burch agreed with Justice, noting that it should be left up to school districts.

“If there's any changes in that, of course, we would work with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to implement [a mask mandate], if they decide on their end there is a health need,” Burch said.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for K-12 schools across the nation. Given the nature of the much more contagious Delta variant, the CDC recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of [COVID-19] vaccination status."

Even though Burch took no statewide stance on a mask requirement, the West Virginia Department of Education did issue back-to-school guidelines Wednesday for all 55 school districts.

The guidelines call on local superintendents to continue working closely with their local health departments to make decisions that work best with their counties.

Burch said districts should monitor outbreaks, DHHR’s COVID-19 risk map and continue with all mitigation strategies such as social distancing, contact tracing and heightened cleaning efforts.

“[Districts] have learned so much about how to deal with this virus over the last year that we really want them to be in a position to make those decisions locally, of what they need, and be prepared to pivot and respond if we see an increase,” said Burch.

He acknowledged masks are important, however, and the superintendent recommends mask-wearing for children who are not yet able to be vaccinated.

He also encouraged anyone 12 and older who has not yet gotten the COVID-19 vaccine to do so.

Virtual schooling this fall is also changing.

All 55 counties will open to full, in-person learning. But virtual options will be available for all middle and high schools. Elementary schools, however, will not be required to have virtual options available.

Burch said elementary-aged students last year did the poorest in the state with virtual and remote learning. Additionally, he said 52,000 students in West Virginia did not attend any in-person school in the 2020/2021 school year.

“Many of those children have not been in a brick-and-mortar school since March of the beginning of the pandemic,” Burch said. “So that means if you teach first grade, you potentially will have children coming into your classroom in first grade who have never stepped foot into a school before.”

The social-emotional toll on children this past year was also substantial, and it’s for this reason state officials say in-person schooling is the best option for children, especially those in elementary school.

West Virginia’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers President Fred Albert agreed that in-person is where kids need to be.

“We know that what works best is face-to-face instruction,” Albert said in a Skype interview. “Having the children in brick-and-mortar buildings, being there with their friends, being there face-to-face with their teachers. It's just a much better situation for learning.”

Albert, however, cautioned that following the CDC’s guidelines, which encourages mask-wearing for all K-12 students and staff, ought to be considered on a statewide level.

Student testing data will also be available soon, according to state education officials.

Next week, the West Virginia Board of Education is expected to release grades and standardized testing data from the spring at its monthly meeting on Aug. 11.

In fall 2020, one-third of all K-12 students in West Virginia failed at least one core subject, according to the WVDE.

Schools in the state are set to return to in-person classrooms as early as next week, according to Burch, with all 55 counties back in classrooms by Aug. 28.

This episode of “Closing the COVID Gap” originally aired on West Virginia Morning on Aug. 5, 2021.


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