West Virginia officials yet again amended guidelines for reopening schools on Tuesday, with the aim of restarting in-person instruction and sports in more counties.
The changes add a new category to the state’s color-coded coronavirus map, which rates the severity of the outbreak in counties. Critics and education groups say multiple tweaks to the map over several weeks have confused parents and school officials.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice and his advisers unveiled the new gold category after an hours-long meeting on Monday evening. Starting Wednesday, five counties can resume in-person instruction and sports competitions after moving from orange to gold.
Officials also changed the metric for how counties are labeled on the map, which now features five color categories. Counties in gold have 10 to 14.9 confirmed cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 5% or less over seven days.
“Parents, I know it’s confusing,” Justice said. “But we try to give you as clear a path as we can possibly give you.”
The West Virginia Education Association, which has about 15,000 members, slammed the rollout.
“We are angry that our state leaders continue to manipulate the color-coded map,” Dale Lee, president of the association, said in a statement. He added that the Justice administration has “no idea whether these changes will put teachers, service professionals or students in harm’s way.”
Previously, categories were solely based on the number of positive cases. Justice said that gave rise to the notion that counties could restrict testing so that fewer cases would be discovered, in order to remain in the green or yellow categories. He said giving counties the option of meeting reopening guidelines by lowering positivity rates will motivate local officials to increase testing.
Yellow counties have between 3.1 and 9.9 cases per 100,000 residents or a positivity rate of 4% or less. Green counties, where community transmission of the virus is believed to be minimal, have three or fewer cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 3% or less.
The most severe categories, orange and red, require schools to go virtual and end most extracurricular activities.
The state posted the new county map for schools on Tuesday afternoon. It moves five previously orange counties into gold: Putnam, Boone, Logan, Mingo and Fayette. Kanawha and Monroe remain orange, and Monongalia County is still the only one in red.
Gold counties require students in third through 12th grades to wear face coverings at all times. Assemblies and large group activities are not allowed. In sports, gold county schools can only compete against schools within the county or in other gold counties. Cheerleaders and bands can participate at home games, but only parents can attend.
Less than a week ago, Justice announced he wanted counties that move into the orange category to take classes online. On Monday, he said the orange category was too broad and was punishing some counties that were “only so slightly into the orange category,” leading to another tweak.
Democratic nominee for governor Ben Salango said the changes were spinning heads. Salango, a member of the Kanawha County Commission, said local leaders should be the ones deciding whether their schools should reopen or not.
“Jim Justice has changed the map so many times that our parents are confused,” he said at a virtual press conference before the governor’s expected announcement. He said some counties in orange and red should be able to reopen schools if outbreaks are limited to one area.
“Simply because there’s an outbreak in the eastern end of Kanawha County, at a church for instance, doesn’t mean that the western part of the county should have to shut down schools,” he said.
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