Kids in classrooms

Students returned to classrooms at Tazewell Intermediate School Monday. According to W. Va. state officials, 80 percent of school children so far have decided to take in-person classes as opposed to online learning this year.

CHARLESTON — With K-12 schools planning to open on Sept. 8, almost 80 percent of students have chosen to return to classrooms rather than online learning.

State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch spoke during Gov. Jim Justice’s pandemic briefing Wednesday and said at this point, “it looks like 79 percent of the children out of 265,000 have opted for in-person instruction.”

“That sends a message we are ready for our children to be back in school,” he said, adding that it also puts school divisions in a position to implement the plans in place that best suit the community’s needs.

Burch also said the protocol will also be ready for students, keeping them as safe as possible, and the current protocol may be tweaked.

“We are going to revisit mask wearing in schools,” he said, adding that it is a mitigation measure that may be used more. “We will absolutely be looking at additional requirements for mask wearing.”

Justice also said the high percentage of students who want to return to class means they trust that schools will be safe.

“We will not go back unless we are convinced it’s safe as it can possibly be,” he said. “We need to make the choice to go back to school.”

Protocol guidelines on how to handle a positive case in schools are almost finalized.

“We are working to finalize an outbreak guidance report,” said Dr. Ayne Amjad, state Health Officer and head of the Bureau of Public Health. “It’s step-by-step guidance to answer those questions.”

Amjad said schools will work “hand in hand” with local health departments if a positive test occurs.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was also at the briefing, having joined in an earlier meeting in Charleston with Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader on the White House COVID19 Task Force, and said the stimulus package that has been held up because of a lack of compromise includes $105 billion to help school systems with pandemic expenses.

The money can help pay for sanitization measures and other necessary steps schools had to take to protect students, staff and the community as well as extra personnel needed, including more nurses.

“Whatever our counties need we need to fund that from the federal government,” she said. “I am fighting hard to get that compromise.”

Capito said Birx praised the state’s color code system that indicates if counties meet the COVID-19 metrics to have in-person classes and sporting events at schools.

Those metrics are based on seven-day cumulative positive case trends.

“She was particularly interested in color coding,” Capito said, indicating Birx would share what West Virginia is doing in an upcoming meeting with governors from around the country.

“They share best practices with each other,” she said.

Justice said Birx is “amazing.”

“She has incredible energy and unbelievable knowledge,” he said. “I can proudly say she was tickled to death with the things we are doing in West Virginia, especially the color coding.”

In a statement released by Justice later Wednesday, Birx said she wanted to know how “West Virginia got it right and continues to get it right.”

“I think what I’ve been convinced is it’s really a partnership and teamwork, coming together to create self-sufficiency through innovation, and it’s really been translating to every West Virginian, putting them first and then communicating how important every West Virginian is to each other,” she said.

Birx said the state has a “remarkable plan to safely reopen schools by using a scientific metric to evaluate the safety level in each county and a color-coded map system to let parents, students, teachers, and faculty know what precautions will be taken to ensure the safety of their communities.”

“We’re going to put it in our governors report next week and I’m worried that West Virginia is going to get a call from another 49 governors,” Birx said. “To really lay out the metrics of where every county is, making that visible to every single parent, and linking that to school choice and then very clear guidances of what to do depending on what your category is.”

Birx said the plan is “practical, it’s something that every county and every state can do, it’s understandable, and most importantly, it’s implementable. And that’s really what I got from this visit, is this attention to detail – but not detail for the having of detail – but detail that translates into better service for West Virginians.”

“West Virginia represents exactly what we want to see across the country – a common sense approach based on the data, local data, that people use to keep themselves safe and that they understand,” she said.

Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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