Covid cases and exposures already sending students home in state’s largest school system

Robin Darnell, a pediatrician in Charleston, has been inundated with parents seeking a covid test for their school-age children.

She hopes precautions will curtail the need, but Darnell is worried about trouble ahead.

“I’m hopeful that the quarantines are effective and we can slow it down,” she said, “but I’m fearful for the grade school kids who can’t be vaccinated yet or even in the middle school or high school kids who haven’t gotten the vaccine — it almost feels like a hurricane.”

Starting this week, almost double the number of parents called in to request a covid test because of possible exposure the prior week, Darnell said. Her office, Kid Care Pediatrics, has started offering swabs in the parking lot twice a day.

Kanawha County, the biggest school system in the state, was among the earliest to start this precarious school year, August 9. The return to school coincided with the ominous arrival of the delta variant, a particularly contagious strain that has fueled a rise in active cases among West Virginians of all ages.

This afternoon, the county announced that Capital High will move to remote learning for the rest of the week. Although covid wasn’t specifically mentioned in the announcement, consultation with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department was referenced.

“After consultation with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, we have decided to move all Capital High School students to remote learning the rest of the week,” the school system announced to parents. “Tomorrow, Thursday and Friday will all be remote learning days and we plan to return in person on Monday.”

A tally of covid-19 cases among Kanawha County schools shows dozens across the district, although some individual schools have reported as few as one case and some reports are a few days old.

Particularly hard hit, according to that tabulation, have been Capital High School with 36 cases, John Adams Middle with 19, George Washington High with 14, Horace Mann Middle with 13 and West Side Middle with 10.

Those aren’t the only students affected, though, because some of their classmates are asked to stay home if they are deemed to have been exposed. The state’s guidance recommends quarantining students who were within three feet of an infected person without wearing a face covering.

So for every student diagnosed with covid, there may be several others asked to stay home until they can be tested.

Briana Warner

“Yes, we do have large numbers of quarantining students at certain schools,” said Kanawha County Schools spokeswoman Briana Warner, mentioning Capital, John Adams and Horace Mann as schools that stand out.

She acknowledged that some parents seeking rapid tests wind up reporting experiences with significant backlogs for testing at local urgent care facilities. Warner pointed parents toward options including the Kanawha County health department, as well as the list of free testing sites compiled by the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Kanawha’s policy as school began was to require masks for students in Grade 5 and under but to make face coverings optional for grade levels higher than that.

Then, last week, the school system announced that face coverings would be mandatory for all grade levels starting Friday.

Ryan White

Kanawha school board member Ryan White hopes the number of covid cases, as well as exposures that require quarantining, will now fall.

“I think a vast majority of those were prior to our mask mandate on Friday,” White said. “I think the reason why we’re having trouble with our secondary schools is we didn’t have a masking mandate for the secondary schools.”

It’s hard to judge yet how other counties will fare with attendance because many are just kicking off the year and all have their own mitigation policies.

“I think it depends upon the masking policy,” White said.

Monongalia County Schools, for example, just started today and has a requirement for all students and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Putnam County Schools started Monday and made masks optional at all grade levels.

“So I think Monongalia County will probably have less quarantining going on. They’re mandating masks for everybody. With Putnam County, they will have more because it will include elementary school kids,” White said.

A group of Cabell County parents has threatened to sue the state for not providing consistent health standards across all counties as the pandemic continues.

The state map that was used last year to determine school status based on covid spread showed 17 counties on red, the highest level, today. A football season opener for Robert C. Byrd in Harrison County and Keyser in Mineral County has already been canceled because of covid spread.

The state Department of Education has started compiling a page of county-by-county mitigation plans for the public to examine.

The state also plans to resume posting statewide school outbreak data starting Wednesday, said Megan Archer, communications coordinator for the state Department of Education.

Governor Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice has continued to say his preference is to leave decisions about how to handle covid to local authorities, including health officers. But Justice has also said that if the covid situation continues to deteriorate, state officials might have to institute greater precautions. He made that point again during a Monday briefing.

“We’re on a pathway to have masks. We’re on a pathway to end up with virtual school in a lot of situations and we’re on a pathway to a lot more people dying,” Justice said during his latest coronavirus media briefing. “If this thing continues to escalate every single one of those things is still on the table.”

Darnell, from the vantage of her pediatrician’s practice, said the health situation for school children is complicated.

“Oh gosh. It’s almost like a spider web,” she said. “At least the grade school kids have their mask on and wear pretty faithfully, but they take it off to have lunch. They may have a sore throat or a runny nose or a headache and not recognize that. These unvaccinated grade schoolers have gone to school and even the ones who are doing what they’re supposed to do have gotten exposed.”

She is already worried about the school year being disrupted for so many students who had just now expected to return to classrooms.

Darnell is urging precautions, especially vaccination for students who are old enough and their family members.

“We’re technically a year behind. Now, if kids are unmasked and exposed and unvaccinated, those kids are going to be out of school for another two weeks. For the unvaccinated kids, there’s not a limit to their quarantines. They could be quarantined 14 days go back and be quarantined again,” Darnell said.

“Sometimes it feels like it’s going to be tough to be successful here in the next couple of months.”

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