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Gov. Justice delays W.Va. school start to Sept. 8

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Department of Education continues to develop reopening guidelines for schools this fall, but officials Wednesday cautioned each school system would be responsible for its own reopening plans.

The discussion came even as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced he would push the opening date for schools to Sept. 8 due to increasing numbers in COVID-19 cases.

The governor held a daily coronavirus briefing Wednesday, saying that an upward trend of positive cases has led to the decision to postpone the opening date for West Virginia schools. Most of the state’s 55 county-based school systems were scheduled to open within the first few weeks of August.

“Our president is urging all of us to go back to school. Nobody wants us to go back to school more than I,” Justice said. “But in this situation here, I’ve got to look out first and foremost for the kids, for the teachers, the service personnel, all those involved right on down to the parents and everybody else that are involved with our kids.”

Justice said West Virginia has seen an “avalanche of cases” of COVID-19 in recent days.

“It is preposterous to think we could be going back to school in 2-3 weeks with the information we have here,” he said. “In my opinion it’s the wrong decision because we don’t know. We just don’t know what is going to happen. We have to buy some time.”

Justice said the Sept. 8 start date would apply to all counties and he believes it won’t change the end dates for most of the school systems. Justice said the change would also delay the start of fall sports to a week or two before the start of school.

Justice issued an order Monday which took effect Tuesday requiring people to wear masks while in public buildings. The move received pushback from both businesses and community members who argued the governor did not have the authority to enforce. On Wednesday, Justice again urged people to wear masks in all public buildings and anytime they are unable to maintain social distancing while in public.

“I wish I had more bullets in the gun,” Justice said, holding up a mask. “This is the only bullet I have in the gun, other than having to shut things down. We have got to wear our masks.”

The West Virginia State Board of Education also met Wednesday, receiving written input from the state’s professional and service personnel organizations on reopening and an update from state Superintendent Clayton Burch.

The board reviewed letters from the state’s three education personnel organizations at the beginning of the meeting, but while officials said they would use the input while developing state-level guidance, actual reopening plans would be developed at the local level.

The start of school “will be here before we know it and these organizations are all crying out for a plan,” said state board President David Perry. “I think it needs to be made very clear, as the department and board would make a recommendation, it is only a recommendation, and it is up to individual boards to decide for themselves what pieces or parts they’ll use as they begin the school year.

“I hear it all the time, ‘Are we having school and when are we going to start?'” Perry said. “Those are local decisions.”

“The conditions on the ground may vary dramatically from county to county,” said board member Thomas Campbell. “I can tell you right now, from Greenbriar to Kanawha (counties), they are completely different.”

“In resources as well,” Perry said.

Burch said officials are still working on guidance for local school systems. He said officials will be working closely with Justice and the Secondary Schools Activity Commission to continue to develop those guidelines.

“As of today, we are still under a state of emergency by Gov. Justice,” Burch said. “Any plans created up to this point are contingency only if and when the state of emergency is lifted.”

However, Burch said it is important to get guidance to school systems as quickly as possible so the process can begin at the local level.

“It is time to allow districts to begin putting those contingency plans together and getting them into the public light so the parents and educators can be prepared,” he said.

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