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State officials: As school starts amid rising cases, mask decisions will be made at local level

As a new school year approaches while concerns about the delta variant of covid-19 are on the rise, Gov. Jim Justice and his advisers say decisions about facial coverings in classrooms will be decided at the local level.

“We established ourselves to where local folks are going to make local decisions,” Justice said today. “We’re going to listen to the recommendations from our education folks and we’re going to listen to the recommendations from our medical panel and our medical community.

“I’ve said over and over, right now I am not ready whatsoever that we issue a mandate that we wear masks in our middle schools or any of our schools right now. I’m going to leave a tremendous amount of that decision to the locals because they know best.”

The governor was joined at today’s regular briefing about the state’s pandemic response by state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch and Bernie Dolan, the executive director of the Secondary School Activities Commission.

They described a steady-as-she goes approach to returning to school activities, learning from the experiences of the past year. “First and foremost, we’re starting school in person,” Burch said.

Clayton Burch

Burch described continued emphasis on mitigation, as well as the continuation of contact tracing. But he, too, said mask decisions would be local.

“If you feel you need it, wear a mask,” Burch said. “But really the local superintendents will be looking at that individually for their counties.”

There are some incentives for students to be vaccinated or to opt in for facial coverings, though.

During a later presentation of School Recovery & Guidance for the coming year, Burch noted that students who are vaccinated would not need to isolate if they are identified in a contact tracing effort for covid exposure.

Similarly, students wearing masks would not be sent home to isolate if they are determined to be near someone with covid.

Kanawha County, the state’s largest school system, decided earlier this week to require masks for elementary school students but to make facial coverings optional for students in grades 6 and up.

At today’s later briefing led by state school officials, Burch alluded to how disruptive the past year has been for students.

“The more time they were away from their school and the more time they were away from their teachers the more we saw devastating effects,” he said.

He said this year’s emphasis is to return to school five days a week under the guidance of teachers. “We’re going to do everything we can to support our teachers and students as we come back,” Burch said.

All of today’s speakers emphasized vaccination. Residents ages 12 and above are eligible for vaccination.

“The absolute message our coaches and teachers and parents should be telling our kids is if you don’t want an interruption in our sports programs and everything else, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” Justice said.

Of West Virginia’s vaccine-eligible population, just 56.7 percent are fully vaccinated. State statistics show that younger age groups tend to have the lowest participation in vaccination.

Despite both dire warnings and the possibility of prizes, West Virginia’s vaccination rate has plateaued in recent weeks.

Dr. Clay Marsh

“We know that full vaccination is by far the most protective intervention that we have,” West Virginia coronavirus response coordinator Clay Marsh said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

Meanwhile, covid numbers have been going up.

The state registered 2,848 cases today. Two counties — Marshall and Wyoming — have turned red on the state’s color coded map, indicating the highest levels of covid.

Hospitalizations from covid-19, cases requiring the intensive care unit and covid patients requiring a ventilator have all been going up.

The governor concluded today’s briefing by exhorting more people to seek out vaccination.

“Get vaccinated everybody, please.”



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