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Justice's Hail Mary plan to play football in three high-risk counties slapped down by school officials

Gov. Jim Justice’s last-second Hail Mary attempt to play high school football games Friday in three counties with high levels of COVID-19 spread fell incomplete Monday, as school officials in the affected counties slapped down the proposal.

In his COVID-19 briefing, Justice announced a plan Monday to allow schools in the three counties showing an orange risk factor for accelerated rate of spread — Kanawha, Fayette and Logan — to still have a chance to play Friday, if all players, coaches, cheerleaders and band members would undergo COVID-19 testing and test negative.

However, administrators of the three school systems were quick to reject the plan, despite Justice’s claims that he and aides had worked since Saturday evening to come up with a consensus agreement.

Kanawha County Schools were the first to turn down Justice’s offer, stating that school “administrators, principals, and coaches are focused on opening schools Tuesday, Sept. 8th, and will continue with practices in hopes that the overall COVID-19 numbers go down, so that our student athletes and others have a better chance of participating for an entire season.”

“We thank state officials for this option for our students, but we’ve collectively decided that our focus should be on making sure that we do everything in our power to get our students back to school,” said Tom Williams, Kanahwa Superintendent of Schools. “I’m proud of our coaches and principals for continuing to focus on the start of our school year.”

Fayette County Schools opted out shortly afterward, followed by a rejection of the plan by Logan County school officials.

“I know just how much playing sports means to our communities and our children,” Justice said of the potential last-minute reprieve.

Justice’s announcement followed a rally outside his Capitol offices, in which parents and players chanted, “Let them play.”

As for the protest, Justice said, “We’re not going to be pressured by anybody standing and hollering outside.”

During the briefing, Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 czar and vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, conceded that the plan would require a rapid turnaround of test results, something he said would be challenging, but doable.

“We are highly cognizant that this time frame in delivering any test back is a challenge for us,” he said.

Also Monday, Justice said bars in Monongalia County were authorized to reopen Monday, for the first time since the governor ordered the establishments closed July 13, following a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to crowds at several Morgantown bars.

Justice said Monday that the reopenings would proceed, even though Monongalia County moved Monday from yellow to orange on the risk scale, as testing of returning WVU students was showing a positive test rate approaching 20%.

“That decision was made when our numbers were coming down, down, down. That decision was made umpteen days ago,” Justice said of reopening the bars, saying it would be unfair to bar owners to immediately revoke the reopening order.

Marsh said counties with universities or large colleges can expect an upturn in positive tests among returning students, noting, “It becomes real challenging for these counties.”

Also Monday, state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said school systems in green or yellow counties (reflecting lower rates of spread) will not have the option to open Sept. 8 with fully remote learning.

“We know 70% of the families have asked for in-person classes, so we really, really need to open for our students,” he said, saying that all-remote learning should be limited to “extreme circumstances.”

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department reported 216 active cases, an increase of nine cases from Sunday. Active cases in the county had dipped below 200 Friday.

Marshall University has not updated its dashboard since Friday.

In Ohio, the Lawrence County Health Department reported 10 new positive cases, patients ages ranging from 13-54 (one child). There are 114 active cases out of a total of 451, with 14 deaths. Ten people are hospitalized. Statewide, 895 new positive cases were reported and 10 new deaths, for a total of 4,138.

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported five new positive cases: a 43-year-old woman, 36-year-old man, 64-year-old man, 36-year-old man, all isolating at home, and a 91-year-old man who is hospitalized. There are 37 active cases out of a total 246, with four deaths. Statewide, 381 new positive cases were reported, and three deaths, for a total of 933.

HD Media reporter Taylor Stuck contributed to this report.

Lawrence County schools start 2020-21 year

SOUTH POINT, Ohio — Despite changes to the structure of school at all levels due to COVID-19, the first day of classes at several Lawrence County districts went well Monday, according to officials and staff members.

“I was at all the school buildings today,” said South Point Superintendent Mark Christian. “It went pretty smoothly.”

About half the South Point students were on hand at the four schools while the other half were taking online classes for the first nine weeks, Christian said.

Virtual learning in the district was a lot more structured than last school year when classes were closed by Gov. Mike DeWine in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. “It will be a lot more intense,” he said.

The district has provided Chromebooks for South Point High School and South Point Middle School students. The district hopes to get 400 more for third- through fifth-grade students next week, he said.

Kindergarten classes at both South Point and Symmes Valley districts will start Sept. 8. Orientation for kindergarten students and parents will be held this week, Christian said.

Ironton and Ironton St. Joseph high schools started last week. Superintendents at the other school districts couldn’t be reached for comment.

At Fairland High School in Proctorville, Ohio, teacher Tara Sansom said she was impressed with the cooperation of both staff and students on the first day back since March.

“The district worked hard to have a good plan in place and the kids did a great job following all of the procedures,” she said. “It might have been different wearing the masks, but the kids and teachers alike were glad to get back in the classroom.”

Classes also started Monday for Collins Career Center students. The vocation school is holding classes for seniors Monday, Tuesday and every other Wednesday. Juniors will take classes on Thursday, Friday and every other Wednesday.

Students are wearing masks and their temperatures are taken twice a day in the South Point district, Christian said. “Everyone has their temperature taken before entering the school,” he said.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things went today,” said Symmes Valley Superintendent Greg Bowman. About 200 students in the district are taking virtual classes and more than 600 showed up for classes Monday, he said.

“Our staff has worked hard to get ready for this” and it paid off, Bowman said. “The students did great. They are glad to be back and we’re glad to see them back.”

Students get their temperatures checked by wall-mounted scanners, he said.

“It went well,” he said.

Herald-Dispatch reporter Hanna Pennington contributed to this report.

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WV schools may need help to reopen, but Justice hasn’t used any of $1.25B in federal dollars on them

On July 20, Gov. Jim Justice rejected calls to use some of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to help schools reopen safely and provide internet and computer access to families who may want their children to return to school remotely.

“Everybody wants to start running in a direction and everything and saying something when they don’t have any idea what in the world they’re even talking about,” Justice said. “You know, at the end of the day, it’s a political football.”

The governor noted prekindergarten-12th grade schools were already due roughly $90 million in federal funds. A federal relief package mandated that money go to schools, while Justice allocated the separate $1.25 billion at his discretion.

Justice plans to put over half of the $1.25 billion toward an Unemployment Fund that the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy think tank says isn’t actually an immediate concern, unlike opening schools. The governor is putting $50 million toward highway projects.

Since July 20, announcements and revelations seem to indicate that schools — opening a week from now — do, in fact, need more money. How much more is unclear, but county school systems are currently forgoing safety measures and educational and support services.

On Aug. 3, Kanawha County, the state’s most-populous school system, released a reopening plan that said its online-only students would have to find some way for themselves or their families to reach one of four or five locations in the entire county to pick up federally funded free meals.

In the spring, Kanawha had delivered these meals near their homes. The Food for All Coalition had asked for part of the $1.25 billion to be used specifically to continue deliveries in Kanawha and elsewhere.

On Aug. 10, Justice said that, unlike what was done for West Virginia college students and employees, the state didn’t “have the capability” to test every pre-K-12 student and school employee before the school year began.

On Aug. 17, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch told lawmakers, according to a report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, that over half of students lack reliable internet access.

The governor had recently unveiled a new, $6 million program to boost how far free Wi-Fi internet emanates outside schools and other locations.

Burch told lawmakers, “I think it’s a great project, but it is a Band-Aid.”

Kanawha applied to the state Department of Education for about $1 million to provide internet access to its students, about half of whom are attending online-only.

But the department gave Kanawha just under $400,000.

Kanawha has mostly now ditched its plan to use the grant money to give Wi-Fi hotspots to families without internet access. Kanawha spokesperson Briana Warner said Kanawha is still upgrading existing Wi-Fi on its buses that can drive to communities and broadcast there.

She said this was because the hotspots cost more and because of concerns they still wouldn’t work in rural areas. Previously, Kanawha planned to expand access in both ways.

Members of Justice’s own party say more is needed to help schools reopen.

On Aug. 19, when Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Alex Mooney, both R-W.Va., joined the governor at his regular pandemic briefing, the Republican Congress members both said they were working to get $105 billion more for schools across the nation.

“There’s no way that Republicans and Democrats can’t at least agree on supporting our children’s education here in a few weeks,” Mooney said. “At least pass that bill, and we can keep talking about others, but we need to get that through as fast as possible because there’s a deadline: Schools are opening.”

But a Capito spokesperson did say the senator has “been on the record numerous times backing the governor’s approach — specifically saying that he’s being smart by not spending the funds too quickly.”

“Governor Justice understands that Congress has not yet given the flexibility ... to replace tax revenues by the cities, counties and the state,” the spokesperson said. “Congress intends to do so in the next package, but this has not happened yet. Therefore, it’s in his best interest to have funds available to spend if and when that flexibility is granted.”

Justice seemed to suggest Friday that further needs from schools hadn’t yet materialized.

“There’s significant dollars that are there that we can move that way (to schools) and we will move that way immediately upon needing that,” Justice said. “In addition to that, we’re waiting for this additional stimulus package to come, and when it comes — and it will come soon — when it comes there will be another great big bump of dollars.”

The state Department of Education didn’t provide estimates of how much more money counties need to tackle various issues.

Masks and cleaning supplies are one thing. More expensive items include fixing and upgrading ventilation systems, expanding online access and ensuring that even students attending classes remotely get fed.

Justice said Friday “we can confidently, confidently say that all 55 counties, you know, will have what they requested to be able to begin school.”

But multiple teachers have said they haven’t received masks for students or cleaning supplies, or they’ve received paltry amounts of them. It’s unclear whether that’s mostly a funding issue or a delay in shipments issue.

And then there are the ventilation concerns.

“I do not feel that my school is properly equipped to safely reopen. Our ventilation is awful,” wrote Scott Nibert, a Winfield Elementary teacher, in a message to HD Media. “And we have many teachers that do not take guidelines seriously. I think that until we get the numbers under control better, we need to be remote (teaching).”

Even if it all arrives in time to begin school, continuing school is another matter.

In the past few days, some county schools superintendents have shared concerns about an impending, not current, dearth of funds.

Wyoming County Superintendent Deirdre Cline wrote in an email that “Wyoming County has enough money to re-enter and then operate safely, in the short term. We are grateful for the funds that have been afforded us and have taken time and energy to spend the funds wisely.”

But, Cline wrote that there is “concern regarding sustainability of the PPE [personal protective equipment], cleaning supplies and other resources necessary regarding safety. If the pandemic continues, there will be a burden placed on our school system to sustain the level of provisions that we have, now.

“I would see that our school system could need another round of funding, comparable to what we have received so far, in the middle of the school year, if the pandemic continues.”

Roane County Superintendent Richard Duncan wrote in an email that “if you were asking simply if we have enough to just get started, I would say ‘yes.’ We’ve installed air purification systems in all schools, thermal scanners on entries, ordered additional iPads for students to use when/if we are fully ‘remote’ later in the year, spent a significant amount on stipends for teacher trainings, stockpiled cleaning supplies and PPE, etc.”

Duncan wrote that Roane, which had about 2,000 students last school year, has thousands of masks and hundreds of face shields stockpiled, with more being donated. The district has partnered with Roane General Hospital to establish clinics in each school for things like entry screening and COVID-19 testing.

But even with all this, Duncan said it’s unknown whether Roane has enough masks, cleaning supplies and other resources to make it through the entire fall semester.

Barbour County schools Superintendent Jeff Woofter said his biggest concern is that his school system is having to pay the state Department of Education for Barbour students to take virtual-only courses.

“For the amount of kids we have signed up for virtual, which is like 360, I believe it’s going to cost us $440,000,” he said.

A department spokeswoman noted Barbour had already received $1.2 million in coronavirus relief.

Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary/Middle School Principals, said he’s concerned about ventilation and questions whether there are enough nurses, custodians and other staff to aid schools.

“And do we have that in the long term?” he said. “Because this is not a Sept. 8 issue, it’s a 2020-21 issue.”

“It would be good if we were investing in the long-term needs while we are addressing the needs of the virus as well,” he said. “We need to be looking at substandard facilities and issues of staffing numbers, to make sure our children’s needs and our schools’ needs are properly met. And I believe some of this money could be used as a dual investment.”

Justice said Friday that “everybody needs to know we’re going to have problems, we’re going to have some level of problems. It won’t be perfect, but I think, absolutely, it’s a good plan and I think we’ve got to continue to try to move forward.”

And on Monday, he said “I am not going to compromise in any way the well-being of our children.”

Opioid trial pushed to October

CHARLESTON — A trial initially set to start Monday in a federal civil lawsuit filed by the city of Huntington and Cabell County against opioid distributors, blaming them for fueling the opioid epidemic in the area, has been reset to October.

Senior U.S. District Judge David A. Faber ordered the delay in May after COVID-19 shut down the federal court system and businesses across the country for weeks. A final settlement meeting is now ordered to take place no later than Sept. 23, a final pre-trial hearing will happen 10 a.m. Oct. 14 and the trial will start Oct. 19, according to federal court documents.

Cabell County and Huntington’s cases against the “Big Three” drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — allege they helped create the opioid crisis by pumping millions of pills into the region.

The lawsuits argue that manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the states over the past several years — a duty the lawsuits claim companies have under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data showed that from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.

Cabell County and Huntington filed their lawsuits in early 2017, leading more than 2,000 other governments in filing such lawsuits. While dozens of companies are named in the Cabell County and Huntington lawsuits, only the case against those three companies is moving forward at this time.

A settlement offer of $1.25 billion was previously made to those companies, but has not been accepted.

The same three companies settled with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio for $215 million in the final hour before the first trial last year.