West Virginia schools have put theory to practice during the first month of the new school year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. After six months of preparation, county education leaders have worked with the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) and their local health departments and implemented re-entry plans for more than 252,000 school-aged children. As a result, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), public schools, while having to respond to outbreaks brought into their buildings from community spread, are not the hub of disease spread.
On Sept. 8, the public school year opened in the state. Each county gave families an option to return to some level of in-person instruction after the extended break that began on Mar. 16 when Governor Jim Justice moved all schools to remote learning. With many unknowns, county school systems worked with their local leadership, county health departments and the WVDE to develop plans and processes to meet the needs of their students during the pandemic. More than 70 percent of families opted for the in-person or blended instruction model.
“Counties have been diligent to develop plans that are in line with WVDE and DHHR protocols that will prevent the spread of infection inside the school,” said State Superintendent of Schools W. Clayton Burch. “We knew from the beginning there would be cases in our schools, but the immediate response to mitigate the infection from spreading has been critical to keeping schools safe and open.”
Of the 691 schools in the state, 24 are currently experiencing outbreaks which are defined as two or more confirmed cases among students or staff who are epidemiologically linked in the school setting (e.g. same bus, classroom, sports team) from separate households and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation within a 14-day period.
As the current count indicates, approximately .02 percent of students and .3 percent of teachers and staff members have been infected with a confirmed case of COVID-19. According to the DHHR, most of these cases originated outside of the school building, and, due to proper protocols, were mitigated to prevent more wide-spread infections. Schools are working closely with their local health departments to quarantine students and staff as a preventative measure to contain the disease. Using a more surgical approach, the goal is to avoid moving large portions of a school or district to remote learning when possible.
As was expected, the state is experiencing higher infections rates moving into the fall, and protocols developed by the DHHR and the WVDE have been effective in disrupting the spread of COVID-19 when they are in place and followed diligently.
“We must stay on guard, wear our masks and practice the other protocols if we want in-person instruction and extracurriculars to continue,” Burch said. “We need everyone to engage in consistent, dedicated and long-term vigilance so that our children may have the opportunity to enjoy some semblance of normalcy in their schools.”
In many cases, schools were moved to remote learning because of the lack of substitute teachers, a problem facing the state for many years. “We had some serious challenges in front of us before COVID-19 hit our state,” Burch said. “The pandemic has compounded them, making it even more imperative that our children get back to school and in the care of our educators when it is safe to do so.”
The partnership of state agencies supporting county school systems is also important to guard public health. The West Virginia National Guard has increased testing sites to identify cases and the DHHR continues to work through the local health departments to implement contract tracing when cases are found.
Outbreak information is provided by the DHHR and posted on the WVDE website daily at https://wvde.us/schooloutbreaks, and counties are using various communication channels to publish information about COVID in their schools. Additionally, the Saturday Education Map posted each Saturday at 5 p.m. provides the color-coded map the state follows each week. It can be found at https://wvde.us/school-reentry-metrics-protocols/.
For more information, contact Christy Day at the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Communications at 304-558-2699 or Christy.Day@k12.wv.us.
For information about COVID-19, please visit www.coronavirus.wv.gov or wvde.us/COVID19.