CHARLESTON — Officials with the West Virginia Department of Education and state Board of Education will leave it up to local counties and schools when it comes to dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.
State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch, state Board of Education Vice President Tom Campbell, and WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan held a press conference Wednesday at the Department of Education offices in Charleston.
“Our children have had one heck of a year. In and out of school, the lack of consistency. Some virtual and some remote. Some live,” Burch said. “Knowing what we know from the pandemic, the goal is to be consistent. The goal is to make it safe for more children to be in-person.”
The Department of Education released its school recovery and guidance plan Wednesday. The guidance was crafted and put into place for summer school programs across the state, as well as summer sports conditioning programs.
Burch said school will start in-person in all 55 counties this fall. Decisions on whether to stay open or go to remote learning during instances of high virus transmission will be left up to county superintendents and county health departments, though any days lost will have to be made up.
Instead of quarantining entire classrooms, schools, and sports teams, vaccinated students or students wearing face masks will no longer have to quarantine if a student or teacher has a COVID-19 infection. Contact tracing for students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will continue.
Virtual school will still be an option for parents concerned about having their children in school buildings. More than 52,000 students participated in virtual schools last year. However, unless a county already offers virtual learning for Kindergarten through fifth grade, virtual learning will only be available for sixth grade and up.
Burch said the Board of Education will release data next week from a statewide assessment showing a severe loss in learning for students in Kindergarten through fifth grades due to not having a teacher working in-person with students.
“Grades K-5 took the biggest hit in the assessment. We’ve never really seen that before,” Burch said. “It was bad. It was not good. They suffered the most … many counties are apprehensive about what a virtual option would look like.”
Virus mitigation strategies will continue, including making sure schools have access to cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, as well as encouraging students and staff to practice safe hygiene. Classrooms will still be set up for smaller core groups, and larger group settings will be constantly evaluated.
Dolan said summer sports conditioning for fall sports began July 5 for a three-week window with no outbreaks during that time. Practice for fall sports has already begun except volleyball, which starts next week. Required guidelines for sports put in place at the beginning of the 2020 school year are only recommendations this year.
The use of face masks in classrooms by students, teachers, and staff will not be mandated by the state, though officials encourage the use of masks if that makes people more comfortable. Individual counties will be empowered to make decisions regarding mask mandates.
Instead, education officials intend to focus more on getting the remaining eligible students, teachers and staff vaccinated. Vaccines are available for all West Virginians age 12 and older.
Burch announced an increase in prize money for the department’s “I Got Vaxxed” contest to see what schools can get the most of their students and staff vaccinated. Officials will pick the top 12 schools on Oct. 1 and award each school a $50,000 grant. The competition is open to all public and private schools. The grant can be used for proms, fairs, pep rallies, or other student-based activities.
State health officials started vaccinating teachers and school service personnel back in January, starting with older school employees first. Schools have also been made available over the last several months for vaccine clinics. Burch said those clinics will continue this fall as well.
Dolan also encouraged students, coaches, parents, and fans to get vaccinated. Dolan said the frustrating part about last fall’s sports season was requiring teams to quarantine due to COVID-19 infections. But CDC guidelines state that those vaccinated who have a breakthrough infection do not have to quarantine, allowing a team to continue to play.
“We encourage you to get vaccinated because if we know you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to sit in quarantine,” Dolan said. “When you think about athletics last year, most of our issues dealt around quarantining and not necessarily the virus itself with the teams … we’ll see more teams be able to play and I don’t think we’ll see whole counties being shut down.”
Last school year, school systems were required to make remote learning decisions based on a color-coded map similar to the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System map. Counties in the orange and red on the Saturday before the next school week were required to close for in-person learning and switch to remote learning. The color also affected middle and high school sports.
During the spring of 2021, the state changed protocols as COVID-19 cases began to decrease from the peaks in December 2020 and January, requiring schools to remain open regardless of the map color. By the end of March, the department’s map was ditched altogether.
According to Burch, 33 counties will start the 2021-2022 school year on Friday, Aug. 20, with all 55 county school systems up and running for the school year by Saturday, Aug. 28.
(Adams can be contacted at [email protected])