At this point, West Virginians were supposed to be a month out from the start of the new school year. But with little or no notice to the school districts, Gov. Jim Justice changed that last week when he decreed that school will open no earlier than September 8.
That may be for the best. School systems were giving themselves a small window to get ready for the new year. Schools had to be disinfected, and equipment had to be acquired to constantly disinfect them. Measures to implement and enforce social distancing in the classroom, in the cafeteria, on the playground and on the bus had to be developed. There was always the question of how to protect the health of teachers, school staff and other adults in the system while also ensuring children received the teaching they need.
And each county had to be ready for the inevitable event of someone testing positive for the novel coronavirus. Would individual classes be shut down, or the entire school? Who would be paid for the time off, and how would that time be accounted for?
That’s a lot of planning for the decision makers in the teaching, human resources, transportation and other departments in the local school systems. One unforeseen event could unravel the entire complex plan, just as the virus itself brought an abrupt end to in-classroom teaching time back in March.
“It’s preposterous to think we could be going back to school in two, three weeks with the information we have here,” Justice said last week. “Our cases (are) exploding to the upside. Absolutely, if we were to rush this and go back to school in two or three weeks, in my opinion it’s the wrong decision because we don’t know, we just don’t know what’s going to happen. We have to buy some time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed the idea of having students return to the classroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for how schools should re-open.
“The public health interests of the students today is to get these schools reopened,” CDC Director Robert Porterfield told ABC News. Porterfield said schools should use a spectrum of strategies in considering the right mix of distancing, face covering and seating as they plan to reopen.
Here in West Virginia, we need to ask if all counties need to reopen on or about the same date.
As of Thursday, about one-third of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in West Virginia were found in three counties: Kanawha, Berkeley and Monongalia. That’s not surprising, as those are the three counties with the highest populations.
If you look at another measure, things change.
Randolph County had the most confirmed cases per 100,000 people with 596. It was followed on that list by Jackson County at 511, Pocahontas County at 449, Jefferson County at 437 and Berkeley County at 420. Farther down the list were Wayne County, 305, Cabell County, 188, and Mason County, 79.
Will there come a time when the governor and state health officials decide that a one-size-fits-all strategy isn’t necessary and maybe schools in Cabell and Mason counties could open sooner than in Randolph and Jackson counties?
There are no simple or easy answers in anything related to COVID-19, and anyone looking for them will end up frustrated and disappointed. West Virginia may be a small state in terms of area and population, but data indicate different regions need to react to the virus in different ways.
Giving individual counties more latitude in deciding when and how to open should be part of the decision-making process.