CHARLESTON — During Wednesday’s news briefing, Gov. Jim Justice joined State education and health leaders to unveil the multifaceted plan that will be used to reopen all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools in West Virginia and will also provide multiple options and resources to allow all students to resume their education.
“I’ve told you repeatedly that there’s no chance in the world, to the best of all my abilities, will I put a kid, a teacher, our service personnel, or anyone into a situation that’s unsafe,” Justice said. “Today, I am extremely proud to announce that we have a safe method to reopen our schools that we built in from a standpoint of local control and scientific metrics.”
Timeline and options
Gov. Justice announced that the target date for school re-entry currently remains Tuesday, Sept. 8. Local data including community spread and infection rates will continue to be monitored to ensure students and staff are able to return to school safely.
All 55 counties are required to submit their re-entry plans to the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) by Friday, Aug. 14. Each county will offer multiple options for instruction, including in-person instruction, virtual instruction, or a hybrid model. Parents and guardians will have the flexibility to select their preferred instruction model.
In-person instruction and hybrid models would place students in the classroom for a set number of days based on each county’s re-entry plan. However, generally, the hybrid option will feature reduced days or reduced hours of in-person instruction, combined with distance or virtual learning.
Virtual instruction would serve as an option for parents or guardians who have concerns about sending their child back to school. Virtual instruction will require complete online learning with a broadband or WiFi access.
All counties must have plans in place to minimize exposure and to implement best health practices like social distancing, face coverings, hand washing, and disinfection protocols. They must also provide a plan to continue to feed children daily, regardless of the mode of instruction they choose and they must continue to provide support services for students who may require additional assistance.
Mason County Schools Supt. Jack Cullen said that the county will be offering a blended plan of in the buildings two days per week and three days at home, or a full virtual option. Cullen said to register for the online programs, there is a form on social media platforms for Mason County Schools or parents can call Dr. Kenny Bond at the Central Office. Parents can register their children for virtual options up to Aug. 27.
“The re-entry plan for Mason County gives parents two options,” Cullen said. “For parents that do not feel it is safe to send their children to school at this time, they have the virtual school options. For parents that want to send their children to school fives days a week, we have a progression in place to get there. It is best to start slow to make sure our students and staff are safe. We will start with a blended model at first where students will attend school two days a week and have lessons at home three days. As long as Mason County stays in the Governor’s Color code to attend school and working with our school nurses and local health department will move to a four day blended model after three weeks. If every thing is fine after three weeks in the blended model of students attending school four days a week and one day remote, we will move to students attending school five days a week.”
If a county were to see substantial community transmission, Gov. Justice, State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch, and the affected county superintendent would work together on additional actions to keep schools safe, including stopping in-person instruction and going to full remote learning if necessary.
Gov. Justice announced Wednesday that he has directed the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) and State medical experts to work with the WVDE to develop a metric that will be used to indicate when it is safe to go to school and when community transmission rises to a level where additional action may be necessary.
The Governor announced that the metric, which is still in development, will be based on each county’s rate of COVID-19 cases over certain periods of time.
As soon as the metric is finalized, it will be made publicly available. The numbers for each county will be posted to an online dashboard and a map for the public to see.
“Over the next 10 to 14 days or so, we will develop a code system,” Gov. Justice said. “From that, what we’ll do is be able to look at an area and say, ‘This county has this level of the metric and it is beyond what we think is acceptable for the schools to be open.’ From there, in that county at that point in time, we would not have schools open. We would do it all virtually until we get the numbers back down.”
Depending on how each county is performing in the metric, they will each be assigned one of four colors: green, yellow, orange, or red.
Green indicates that a county is experiencing minimal community transmission, allowing counties to operate under general re-entry guidelines while continuing to follow best health practices to prevent the spread of the disease.
Yellow indicates that a county is experiencing moderate community transmission and increased restrictions may be necessary.
Orange indicates that a county is experiencing higher community transmission and further restrictions will be necessary, in collaboration with local health officials.
Red indicates that a county is experiencing substantial community transmission. Under these conditions all in-person instruction would be suspended and remote learning plans would be activated. Staff would continue essential support services, including meals, student engagement, and special education.
Each county’s performance in respect to the safety metric will be continuously evaluated by DHHR and updated on the online dashboard and map resources.
Cullen said that he expects the first ratings to be released in the next week. Cullen also said the “color codes” will be updated at least weekly, if not more often.
Kids Connect: Broadband expansion
Also on Wednesday, Gov. Justice announced that in order to ensure all West Virginia students have the access to broadband that they need to participate in virtual or remote learning, he is committing $6 million to his new Kids Connect initiative.
Under this program, the Governor’s Office of Technology will work alongside the WVDE and the Higher Education Policy Commission to establish over 1,000 free wireless internet access points statewide by Sept. 8, with locations in all 55 counties.
“Today, there’s 40 percent of our state where our kids can get onto broadband,” Gov. Justice said. “What this will enable them to do is go to one of these 1,000 locations and go into a parking lot, or whatever it may be, and download their online assignments.”
The access points will be in the parking lots of all Pre-K-12 schools, totaling 688 sites. Additional access points will be provided at 32 higher education institutions, 255 libraries, and 31 of West Virginia’s state parks.
Later in his address, the Governor also announced that he is planning to work alongside the WVDE and each county board of education to make sure that all students have access to devices like laptops and tablets so they can participate in virtual learning.
“If they don’t have a laptop or a tablet, what we want to do is be able to provide one for every kid in this state,” Gov. Justice said. “We’re going to make sure that our kids can get online. We’re going to deliver a quality education to all of our kids.”
Cullen said that there will be wireless access at all schools and libraries. Mason County schools also have laptops for students in Kindergarten through 12th grades.
During his remarks, the Governor added that he is working with education leaders to ensure that, if a student needs transportation to school, a feeding location, a Kids Connect broadband access point, or to sports practice, transportation will be provided through each county’s bus system.
“We’re going to send buses so we can get our kids to these needs as best as they possibly can,” Gov. Justice said. “Is it tough? Yes. But there is nothing more important than providing our kids with access to these resources and opportunities.”
Gov. Justice added that he and Superintendent Burch continue to work alongside West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission Executive Director Bernie Dolan on how to make sure athletes are safe, and how to account for the possibility that some counties may have to stop in-person sporting events if community transmission rises to a high level.
“We want to educate our students, but also want to make sure we do the best we can to take care of the safety of our students and staff,” Cullen said. “We will have to get guidance from WVDE to help us with Gov. Justice’s press conference yesterday.”
Kayla (Hawthorne) Dunham contributed to this article. Additional information provided by the office of Jim Justice.