Governor Jim Justice ...

Governor Jim Justice speaks during a virtual pandemic briefing Tuesday morning.

CHARLESTON — A new gold category was added Tuesday to West Virginia’s School Alert System map which Gov. Jim Justice said would allow more students to return to in-person classroom instruction.

After the governor made his announcement, the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) posted the updated School Alert System map that includes the new gold category metric. Counties in gold have 10 to 14.9 cases of COVID-19 infection per 100,000 people.

In the gold category, counties will be able to move to in-person instruction with restrictions including face coverings or masks at all times for grades 3 to 12. Extracurricular activities are permitted and competitions may occur against schools within the same county as well as schools in other gold counties. In addition, modifications to spectator requirements at extracurricular activities have been made.

As a part of this re-set, students from several counties that were deemed orange as of last Saturday’s (Sept.12) School Alert Map update, are now gold and may, at the discretion of their local boards of education, return to in-person instruction today, state school officials said. They may also resume activities described for code orange. County boards of education may also decide to wait and make decisions based on this Saturday’s School Alert System map update.

When a county school system is under code gold, there can be no assemblies or large group activities. Local education leaders will work with county health officials to “determine if increased mitigation and community engagement activities are necessary to prevent escalation of disease,” state school officials said. 

As of Tuesday, McDowell County and Mercer County were in code yellow, which stands for increased community transmission. Monroe County was in code orange, which is heightened community transmission.

The next School Alert System map update is scheduled for Saturday at 5 p.m. All schools, both public and private, are expected to adhere to the WVDE School Alert System map to guide in-person instruction and extracurricular activities.

Justice said during a press briefing Tuesday that it was decided during a meeting Monday evening to include the gold category, adding that he learned then that Kentucky had adopted West Virginia’s color code system; meanwhile, West Virginia continues to “tweak” its color code system.

“Just because we have a plan doesn’t mean we can’t make it better and better and better,” he said, adding that the difference between the system’s orange and yellow color codes “was too wide,” and that too many students were being kept out of school by the older system. 

Justice said that about 60,000 of the state’s students were not in school, and 15,000 of those are special needs students; and that those students should be allowed back in class if they can attend school safely.

When describing the changes being made and  the School Alert Map, Justice compared the changes to those he said were made during the Apollo program that put American astronauts on the moon.

“Think of the times they had to adapt and to change to get our people back safely,” he said.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 czar, said he wanted to remind the public that “this is a pandemic we have never seen before. There’s no playbook, and this is an extremely fluid situation and we’re learning in real time.”

Student learn well when they’re in class and it helps their social development, Marsh said.

“We also know there has never been a public health map that shows what we should do during this pandemic,” he added, saying that West Virginia is a rural state with an “uneven” population, a population that is concentrated in some areas like cities and spread out in other areas. The same responses to the pandemic may not work in every part of the state.

“We talked about our current system and try to understand as a team how to make it better,” Marsh said about the Monday evening meeting. 

Justice said he knew that parents find the color code system confusing, adding, “I don’t know how to make it not some level of confusing.”

“We know we are dealing with a life and death matter nobody has ever had to handle before,” he said. The state is working to put more stringent measures in place and “tighten down” requirement; the goal is not to leave about 60,000 students out of school.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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