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Cabell, Wayne residents push for more community-based districts

HUNTINGTON — Districts with like communities was the top priority for Cabell and Wayne county residents who spoke to the West Virginia Joint Committee on Redistricting on Thursday evening at the Cabell County Courthouse.

The committee is hosting public hearings around the state as part of the redistricting process, which occurs by law every 10 years.

No proposed maps were at the meeting as data from the 2020 U.S. census was delayed due to the pandemic.

For Wayne County residents, the top priority is dividing the county in two. Speakers like Robert Thompson, Wayne County commissioner and a former Wayne delegate, said the southern part of the county has different interests than the northern part. The south is in the coalfields and much more rural than areas like Ceredo and Kenova, which are more closely tied to Huntington.

In the House of Delegates, the entire county, with the exception of Westmoreland, is in the same district. The county is divided into unequal thirds in the Senate, however, which residents said was confusing and made it so some people didn’t know who their representative was.

“We need to develop what we have,” said Pepper Peana. “Southern Wayne needs its own representation so we can have a fighting chance. Otherwise, we will continue to see projects go by the wayside.”

One of those projects is the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard, a $32 million investment in 2015 that the state has since abandoned as it failed to produce as projected.

Kenneth Adkins, president of the Wayne County Commission, said there are efforts underway to revitalize that project, and a dedicated representative would help.

“Wayne is the western gate to West Virginia,” Adkins said. “When they cross the gate, they don’t stay long, though, and that’s something we want to change.”

Cabell County residents, who currently have representation throughout four districts, expressed concerns about losing representation. T-Anne See, chairwoman of the Cabell County GOP, said she’s heard from many people with that concern.

She said there are also candidates chomping at the bit for the new district information. Commissioners from both county commissions asked for the new districts to be drawn as fast as possible so county clerks can get to work.

Nyoka Baker Chapman, representing the Huntington League of Women Voters, said the goal should be compact districts, as districts are currently “chaotic.” District 16, for example, packages downtown Huntington with a part of Lincoln County.

“I ask that great care be taken to make sure communities of interest stay grouped together,” said Lenny Sunduhl, Huntington resident.

As for the congressional districts, of which West Virginia will drop from three to two, many agreed with Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce director Bill Bissett that Huntington and Charleston should be in the same congressional district.

“Separation is just another wedge (between the two cities),” Bissett said.

The southern coalfields should also be in the two cities’ district, he said.

“Many forget how connected to southern West Virginia we are, but you are in the coalfields,” Bissett said, adding that anything great in Huntington and Charleston needs to be expanded south.

“Opportunities can’t just be in the population centers,” he said. “We have to share that.”

Two more in-person listening sessions are scheduled for early September in Charleston and in Parkersburg. Two virtual sessions will be announced soon.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said they hope to present maps to the Legislature in October.

COVID-19 vaccinations remain steady at local colleges

HUNTINGTON — COVID-19 vaccination rates at Huntington’s institutions of higher learning are steadily increasing.

According to Marshall University’s COVID-19 dashboard, 60% of the student body is now vaccinated, up two percentage points from Monday’s start of the term. Employee vaccinations are almost at 84%. Twenty first doses of the vaccine were administered this week.

Fifteen students are in isolation, meaning they are positive for the virus. One of those students is isolating on campus. One student is in quarantine, meaning they have been exposed to someone who is positive. Holderby Hall is restricted to isolating/quarantining students, whether they reside on campus or not.

Ten positive cases were found in students this week. All students who moved into the residence halls Saturday were tested.

At Mountwest Community and Technical College, it was reported at the last board meeting there is a 97% faculty vaccination rate. Vaccines are not required for students at either institution. Mountwest hosted a vaccine clinic last week, with a chance to win a free year of tuition, among other prizes.

Fifty-three percent of Cabell County’s total population is vaccinated. The goal for the county, and the individual schools, is to reach a 70% vaccination rate.

The COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective at protecting against severe cases of the virus as well as related hospitalizations and death.

Spread of COVID-19 remains high in Cabell County. On Monday, there were 676 active cases of the virus in the county.

West Virginia as a whole reported 1,448 new positive cases of the virus Thursday and 13 new deaths.

Kentucky reported 65 more virus-related deaths along with its third-highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases Wednesday as hospitals are overwhelmed.

Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday that the latest batch of grim COVID-19 statistics would have spurred him to order a statewide mask mandate indoors if he still wielded the authority, but a recent Kentucky Supreme Court decision shifted such coronavirus-related decisions to the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“That would have been the trigger for me, if it was in my authority to put in a masking order for indoors across the state,” Beshear said of the Wednesday statistics. “Every other time we’ve been this high, we’ve done that and it’s worked. It has decreased the number of cases.

“I can’t do that now, and I get that,” the governor added. “And I’ll provide all the information that I can to the General Assembly and hopefully they will make the best choice that they can.”

Senate President Robert Stivers said this week that such a blanket masking mandate would stand a “very limited chance” with lawmakers.

Nearly 5,400 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ohio on Thursday, for a total of 1,197,873. The number of new cases was similar to daily numbers seen in December and January during the winter surge, according to the state Department of Health.

The Department of Health also reported an increase of COVID-19 cases among students heading back to school. Statewide, there has been a 351% increase among school-age residents in the past month.

More than $1 billion in borrowed money for former ITT students to be forgiven

HUNTINGTON — Thousands of former ITT Technical Institute students, including many from the Huntington area, will have access to loan forgiveness five years after the educational system was shut down nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it will make $1.1 billion in closed school discharges available to 115,000 borrowers who attended the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute.

The for-profit college chain announced in September 2016 it was shutting down all 130 of its campuses across the country, determining that it couldn’t survive sanctions handed down by the U.S. Department of Education. At that time, ITT Technical Institute had one location in West Virginia, on U.S. 60 near the 29th Street exit of Interstate 64. The last reported number of students enrolled was approximately 300.

“I’m thrilled that the U.S. Department of Education is supporting students impacted by the closure of ITT Tech through loan forgiveness. At the state higher education office, we worked following the closure to help find solutions for our local students — from helping them transfer credits to another college, to helping them navigate student loan and financial aid questions,” said Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission in West Virginia.

“Still today, I’m sure students are feeling the effects of ITT’s actions, and I’m hopeful that this move by the federal government provides them with meaningful support.”

Thursday’s decision is based on a new review of the problems leading up to ITT’s closure. At the time, Education Department officials said the company had become a risk to students and taxpayers. ITT also had been investigated by state and federal authorities who accused the institution of pushing students into risky loans and of misleading students about the quality of programs.

Borrowers affected by Thursday’s news did not complete their degree or credential and left ITT on or after March 31, 2008. The Department of Education estimates that 43% of these borrowers are in default.

Loan relief will be extended to borrowers whose attendance overlapped with the period of time when the Department of Education says ITT misrepresented its financial health.

“For years, ITT hid its true financial state from borrowers, while luring many of them into taking out private loans with misleading and unaffordable terms that may have caused borrowers to leave school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a news release.

According to the Department of Education, ITT’s malfeasance drove its financial resources away from educating students in order to keep the school in business for years longer than it likely would have, resulting in debts that are now being discharged.

Approximately 7,000 of the borrowers covered by the closed school discharge announcement also have approved borrower defense to repayment claims.

“Today’s action continues the Department’s efforts to improve and use its targeted loan relief authorities to deliver meaningful help to student borrowers,” Cardona said. “At the same time, the continued cost of addressing the wrongdoing of ITT and other predatory institutions yet again highlights the need for stronger and faster accountability throughout the federal financial aid system.”

Borrowers who are eligible for a closed school discharge and attended an institution that shut down between Nov. 1, 2013, and July 1, 2020, will receive an automatic discharge as long as they did not enroll in another institution within three years of their school’s closure. Eligible borrowers who attended ITT within 120 days of its closure in 2016 received automatic discharges in 2019. The majority of the ITT borrowers covered by Thursday’s action did not enroll elsewhere during the three years after ITT’s closure and will not need to take any further action to receive a discharge.

Borrowers who enrolled elsewhere but did not complete their program of study may still be eligible for a discharge, but will need to submit an application. Borrowers can access the closed school discharge application by contacting their servicer or visiting StudentAid.gov/closedschoolform.

Discharges will be processed beginning in September, and borrowers will start receiving automatic discharges in the following weeks.