Schools remain closed despite CDC guidance to open

Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 7:38 PM EST
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HUNTINGTON/CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - In the age of COVID-19, remote learning has become the new norm for students, but national health experts said school is one of the safest places students can be during the pandemic.

During Thursday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, multiple officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, said students should all be in the classroom.

“The infections that we’ve identified in schools, when they’ve been evaluated, were not acquired in schools, they were actually acquired in the community and in the household,” Redfield said. “The truth is for kids kindergarten through 12, one of the safest places can be, from our perspective is to remain in school.”

Despite these recommendations from the federal level, schools across our region remain closed due to COVID case numbers in certain counties.

As of Friday morning, the West Virginia DHHR map has 20 counties in the orange or red, meaning all learning is remote. Another six counties have voluntarily made the decision to close school buildings.

During Gov. Jim Justice’s regularly scheduled Friday news conference, we asked him why schools in West Virginia are closed. Justice said the map is working as it should, and agreed with the CDC guidance that schools are the safest place for students.

“We should absolutely be listening in every way doing what our experts are telling us,” Justice said. “Without any question, we all know that our kids need to be in school, they desperately need to be in school, and without any question, as things go. If our colors in our color map gets terrible bad, we do shut down. If we go to red, we do go to 100 percent virtual, we have these fail safes already built into the map and everything, and now what we are doing.”

Justice said the decisions on the local level to close schools are due to a number of factors beyond the numbers that determine the map colors. Justice said local school leaders are listening to teacher unions instead of health experts.

“Our teacher unions and union bosses tried to pressure the state, then they tried to sue,” Justice said, referencing multiple lawsuits filed by unions representing educators in the state. “On both levels they were rejected, so what they have done, just to tell it like it is, they have gone to the counties. And they are pressuring counties to make moves and everything. That’s not really what we should be doing.”

WSAZ tried to ask Justice additional questions after his news briefing, but Justice said he did not have time and the questions about why schools were closed could be better answered by education leaders. We took our questions to State Superintendent Clayton Burch, who agrees with the CDC guidelines that schools are extremely safe and should be open as much as possible.

“The community is where the problems are, and it does impact our schools,” Burch said. “We have been preaching from the beginning that what we do as adults in the community, it is going to have an absolute impact on our children. Our children need these adults in their lives each and every day, so the message has been pretty clear, we need the schools to stay open whenever possible, whenever it is safe.”

Burch said there were 25 COVID outbreaks in schools during the month of September and 37 in October, but all the cases were identified and isolated through contact tracing.

Remote learning is not a substitute for in-person learning, Burch said, adding students miss out on a lot of educational opportunities while away from the classroom.

“There are just so many things that can happen with remote learning, even with the best intentions,” Burch said. “When you are in remote learning, you are counting on a number of things. One, you are counting on will the student be able to be accountable and independent on their own. If they don’t have the support of parent or guardian there, it is really tough, especially for our younger learners, our learners who are not motivated, our at-risk children, to ask them on their own to be motivated and to engage.

Burch said the lack of rural broadband has made the remote learning process even harder for children of all ages. Schools should only close when it is absolutely necessary due to large outbreaks that have a school’s staff in quarantine or to allow for other COVID precautions like cleaning.

“We have also got to remember that if it is safe and we can have schools, we need schools,” Burch said. “I think honestly, we are going to continue to see that uptick (in COVID cases). We are looking forward to a vaccine, but one thing I said to a group of educators here recently, is that we can’t lose sight of the fact that each one of these children have a future. If you’re a senior in high school, college is coming, graduation is still coming. We have to prepare them. If you’re a kindergartner, you’re still learning, you’re still developing. What are we doing to support that each and every day. These children still have a future. We can not put their lives on hold because of the pandemic.”

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear ordered all schools, public and private, to close and continue with remote instruction until next year.

A statement from the governor’s office said the decision was made following CDC guidelines to close schools due to extremely high transmission of the virus through the community.

“Kentucky has a 9 percent COVID-19 positivity rate and this week we have 112 red zone counties and nearly 10,000 students and staff in quarantine – of those nearly 1,700 tested positive for the virus,” the statement said. “This week we lost our first student to the virus, a 15-year-old girl from Ballard County, and a teacher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes students should be in school when the virus can be controlled. That is not the case in Kentucky as we have experienced a 400 percent increase in positive cases over the past nine weeks and the virus is growing exponentially across the state.”

“The Governor has followed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House Coronavirus Task Force and public health experts, and many other Governors across the country are taking similar actions to protect the health and lives of Kentucky’s children and their families,” the statement concluded.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has not issued any guidelines for mandatory school closures since the start of the school year.

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