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W.Va. schools: 86 outbreaks, two county closures, 53 county mask mandates

There are now 86 covid-19 outbreaks in West Virginia schools, a state Department of Education official told lawmakers this morning.

Michele Blatt

Two counties have had to close for in-classroom learning, at least for the time being, said Michele Blatt, assistant state superintendent.

Calhoun County went to remote learning  last week and needed to extend that closure, she said. And Preston County announced Monday that it would have to move to remote learning for two weeks.

Beyond that, Blatt said, eight individual schools across six counties have had to halt in-classroom instruction.

“The delta surges started in the fall. We did see large numbers of positives come into the school system,” Blatt told lawmakers.

Blatt was speaking before the legislative oversight commission on education accountability during interim meetings. 

School systems across the state have been balancing health concerns about the surging delta variant with the benefits of classroom instruction.

Blatt noted that there were 16 official outbreaks reported among West Virginia schools when the year began. Last week, Sept. 8, she told the state Board of Education that there were 70 outbreaks at the time.

The state Department of Education defines an outbreak as multiple cases involving at least 10 percent of students, teachers or staff within a specified core group such as a classroom or a sports team. Or an outbreak may be defined as at least three cases within a core group. A third definition is active cases not identified as close contacts in another setting such as a household and “epidemiologically linked in a school setting.”

More and more counties have been implementing face covering requirements to try to slow the spread of covid-19.

When Blatt spoke to the state Board of Education last week, she said 29 counties had implemented mask mandates.

Today, she said the state is up to 53 counties with mask mandates. The counties that don’t have such mandates are Putnam and Pocahontas. Ohio and Mingo counties just instituted their requirements.

Some of the counties have a straightforward mask requirement. Others depend on the conditions depicted on a state map of community spread.

The state map that was used last year to guide school responses to the pandemic shows that all counties are now red — the highest level of community spread — except for eight.”

Blatt told lawmakers that there’s some hope that the rate of spread has started to slow down. She said it’s too early to know whether to conclude the current surge has peaked or whether mitigation strategies such as masking are paying off.

“That is one good piece of information I can share today,” Blatt said. “It is much improved from where we were last year.”

Cynthia Persily

Lawmakers also heard from Cynthia Persily, senior director for health sciences for the state’s higher education system, as well as Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives at West Virginia University.

Persily said adjustments have been necessary because of the delta variant but that all colleges are back to in-person learning this fall. She said all colleges have a testing plan in place, ongoing efforts focus on overcoming vaccine hesitancy and there is continuous monitoring of quarantine and isolation space.

“We want to make sure we don’t surge beyond our capacity,” she said.

Rob Alsop

At WVU, Alsop said the university has focused on sustaining its on-campus and classroom experiences. “We know education is better in the classroom,” he said.

He noted that the university does not require vaccination but does try to encourage it.

“Unfortunately the delta variant is very contagious and if you’re not vaccinated very serious,” Alsop said. He added, “The main focus for us is on personal accountability.”

This week, WVU made a change to require facial coverings indoors at all WVU system buildings and facilities through Oct. 6. At that point, officials will reassess.

“We really don’t like requiring masks at all. And as soon as we can lift these temporary restrictions we intend to do so,” Alsop said.

Mike Azinger

Senator Mike Azinger, R-Wood, who has participated in rallies to protest mask orders,  said he wanted to commend WVU for not requiring vaccines. But he criticized the university for requiring face coverings indoors.

“I do have an issue with the mask wearing. I just don’t know of any scientific data that proves that mask wearing levels out that bell curve that you talked about,” Azinger told Alsop.

“To me, that’s a soft tyranny thing that we’ve got to get rid of. It’s a straw man in terms of giving people the impression that they do work and they don’t.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask indoors for people over age 2. The CDC recommends masks that have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that fits snugly and without gaps. The CDC also recommends vaccines, saying they are safe and effective.

Caleb Hanna

Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, criticized WVU for emphasizing testing of the unvaccinated. “This testing of unvaccinated and not testing vaccinated isn’t right,” he said. “It’s segregation.”

Alsop said vaccination is protecting students and faculty from the worst effects of covid-19.

“The best approach for us right now is not to require the vaccine but instead to continue to educate about the benefits of the vaccine moving forward,” he said. “WVU thinks efforts at vaccination have helped prevent more students from having to quarantine.”

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