Gov. Jim Justice introduced more factors into return-to-school plans, saying students or teachers could select virtual options and outlining a color-coded map system that would depict whether the spread of coronavirus is safe enough to be in classrooms.
Justice laid out those policy ideas Wednesday during a regular briefing about West Virginia’s coronavirus response, providing new twists while some counties have already submitted reentry plans, while others are coming right up on a deadline and while students, parents and teachers all wonder what the year will be like.
“We will have total optionality,” Justice said today.
West Virginia continues to aim for a Sept. 8 start to the school year, the governor said.
But Justice noted the spread of the virus is likely to change conditions.
“If you feel like your child should not be at the school then we’re going to make that child’s education — along with all the children that choose not to come to the school — virtual,” Justice said, “and we will absolutely deliver a quality education to them.
“We will do the exact same thing with our teachers and our service personnel.”
Asked later to elaborate on what that means, Justice said “All people will be required to work in some capacity.”
And asked later about a scenario where the county opts for in-school instruction five days a week but most teachers prefer virtual instruction instead, Justice said “If we have a teacher who decides she’d rather not be there, but she can contribute from a virtual standpoint, that’s great.”
The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia posted on social media after today’s briefing that the union had reached out for clarification.
The union said the response from the state Department of Education was, “The Governor did not intend to imply that teachers and service personnel have a choice to report to work.”
Instead, “the intention was that employees with medically-documented health conditions which require an accommodation will be handled on an individual basis within their county.”
County school systems have been asked to meet a mid-August deadline to prepare plans for returning, and some have already approved their plans.
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said discussions continue, though, with officials continuing to assess steps to assure the safety of students, teachers and personnel.
“Last night we were up quite late having this discussion about what’s the overall goal,” Burch said today.
Justice described a code system with green, yellow, orange and red designations to show whether areas have safe conditions for classrooms.
“We will challenge all of y’all in every county to do all you can possibly do to keep your numbers as low as we possibly can,” he said.
A metric is being identified to prompt changes in the designation. So changes in the spread of virus could push schools to remain open, to shut down or to reopen.
“Now the measuring stick — or the metric — to be able to do that is the key,” he said.
“And that’s the very thing that we’re working on to be able to get a fair and good — in fact, outstanding — scientific, mathematical metric in which we can measure a county and say ‘We feel absolutely certain this county’s doing great and we can proceed ahead with the school if people want to come to the school.'”
He said those conditions will also determine whether sports may be played.
“In your county, if you want your sports teams to move on and everything, some way somehow we’ve got to keep the number down in the county,” he said.
“And if we don’t and the numbers are exploding to the upside and you’re a red in your county at that point in time and you happen to have a sports contest that day or that weekend or whatever like that, you’re not going to be able to play. It’s just that simple.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, issued a statement today agreeing that school reopening plans need to be guided by conditions in local communities and that plans need to be implemented by county school boards.
“Given the wide variation of COVID-19 cases in individual counties across the state, a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools does not make sense in West Virginia,” Speaker Hanshaw stated.
“Some counties have few to no active cases, while others are dealing with significant outbreaks. I agree any reopening plans should take into account this variability among our counties, and will support plans that allow our local school boards to adapt to the health conditions in their communities.
Justice also described a “Kids Connect Program” with $6 million in funding for 1,000 wireless hotspots across the state. That will include locations at all K-12 schools, 32 higher education institutions, 255 libraries and 31 state parks.
“What this will enable them to do is go to one of these 1,000 locations,” Justice said, “and what they’ll be able to do is go into a parking lot or whatever it may be and get their assignments, get whatever they need to get at that time.”
The governor said there will also be help with electronics equipment.
“If they don’t have a laptop or a tablet, what we’re going to do is provide it for every single kid in this state,” he said. “We’re going to make sure our kids can get online and figure out what to do and continue their education.”