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Justice targets Sept. 8 to open schools, suggests mask mandate may get teeth

SEE RELATED STORY on Monongalia County BOE’s reaction to Gov. Justice’s school date announcement.

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia schools are tentatively set to reopen Sept. 8, Gov. Jim Justice said Wednesday. And he threatened to put teeth into his currently toothless mask mandate if people don’t comply and the COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb.

Justice said that President Trump is urging states to reopen schools in the fall. In West Virginia, “We absolutely teatotally are ready to go back to school today.” Plans are in place to return safely.

But, he said, he has to look out for the kids, teachers, service personnel and families. “I’ve got to do at the end of the day what I think is the most safe thing and best thing for our kids.”

The ongoing spike in positive cases across the state calls for a delay in making the decision to reopen. The level of exposure at this point is unknown and more information is needed. “I am not going to move until I am absolutely as sure as I can possibly be that our kids are going to be safe,” along with everyone else.

He understands, he said, that kids need to return. “The ramifications of not going back to school are horrible.” But because of the doubts and uncertainty, it’s preposterous to return in two to three weeks.

“We have to buy some time,” he said. With input from schools Superintendent Clayton Burch and others, he’s set a target return date of Sept.8, which will still allow schools to wrap up in May 2021.

They are still working on a start date for school sports, he said, and expects to have news on that on Friday.

The mask mandate

On the mask issue, Justice cited the surge occurring here and across the nation. The nation just saw a 24-hour record of 60,209 new positive cases while West Virginia saw 147 new cases on Tuesday and a daily rate of 5.08%. “Mon has 202 active cases right now and that’s not good.” Mon saw an increase of 62 cases in 24 hours.

His Monday mask order was based on an honor system, he said. “If you can’t, we’ll have to move and make that more strenuant from the standpoint that we’ll have to assess some level of penalties for your non-compliance in your not wearing those masks. … There is an absolute whiplash of this terrible killer that’s moving across our land and it’s moving rapidly. We do not want that terrible killer right in our back door.”

And at some point, he said, he may have to focus on targeted compliance for places such as Mon seeing huge outbreaks.

The numbers, he said, reflect community spread, not a confined outbreak such as the Huttonsville prison outbreak. “That’s bad. That’s not good. … That’s why we’ve got to wear these masks. … This is the only bullet that I’ve got” to avoid a new shutdown.

Asked what the tipping point would be to start instituting penalties such as fines, he said he and his team will be watching the numbers. If the mask mandate moves compliance from 40% to 60% or even 85%, and new case numbers start to decline, “Then we’ve won the game. If they don’t and we’ve got to be more restrictive on the mandatory part with penalties, we’ll do it.”

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh supported Justice’s plea to wear masks, going into more depth on the national surge.

It took 99 days for the first 1 million Americans to get infected, he said, 43 more days to reach 2 million, and just 28 days to reach 3 million

And the infected are getting younger, with the average age in Florida falling to 30-35. “We have this false understanding or belief that if younger people get infected, that somehow it’s OK, that they don’t really get sick.”

And Texas with 10,000 new positive cases on Tueday and Flordia with 8,000 are seeing places running out of hospital and intensive care beds and ventilators. And people 20-40 are dying or seeing long-term consequences such as strokes, heart attacks, amputations from blood clots.

Overwhelming the health care system, he said, can raise the death rate from 1.5% to 5%, or more.

Right now, he said, West Virginia’s Rt rate, indicating disease spread, has climbed from .6 to 1.29, the fourth highest in the nation and reflecting a broad spread. COVID-related hospitalizations are starting to rise, though ICU and ventilator use are not yet climbing.

“We all are at risk for developing this and we all need to work together to slow this down,” Marsh said.

Local school reaction

Preston County Superintendent Steve Wotring and his staff presented a back-to-school plan to the Preston County Board of Education Monday that called for teachers and staff to return to school Aug. 17 and for students to start reporting Aug. 20. At the time, Wotring said they couldn’t wait any longer for the state to come up with a re-entry plan.

“At the presentation, I said the governor could change things and I’ll come up with Plan Q, and that’s about where we are,” Wotring said Wednesday afternoon, after the governor spoke.

Will more time to plan be a good thing?

“It depends what the expectations are during this time,” Wotring said.

He and other county superintendents were notified during the governor’s press conference that the state superintendent of schools will hold a phone conference at 9 a.m. today., “and we’ll go over calendar issues and that sort of thing.”

“So I really won’t know this fully means until after we have that meeting tomorrow,” Wotring said. “It is what it is, and you just have to adjust and come up with a Plan Q, and we just have to remain very flexible.”

But the timing of a Sept. 8 re-entry concerns him. One reason Preston was looking at an August start was so students could receive their laptops or iPads and be instructed on virtual education before Labor Day, in case there is a surge of COVID-19 cases after the holiday.

“We just came off July 4 and we had the biggest percentage [increase in COVID-19 cases] during this whole outbreak. And now he’s saying we’re going to start school the day after Labor Day. So what’s the expectation of what’s going to happen after Labor Day?”

And Wotring said the governor is wrong when he said school could start Sept. 8 and be done in May.

Other issues

On other topics, Justice said the positive cases tied to Myrtle Beach has reached 140.

And he addressed questions of why he put CARES Act money toward roads instead of sending it to cities and counties. He said his revenue experts projected that the $200 million he set aside for cities and counties is what they will qualify for under the CARES guidance. If they need more, he believes another stimulus package and updated guidance will be coming.

Also, $678 million set aside at the moment for the unemployment fund is just sitting and may become free if the feds forgive a portion or all of it, he said.

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Reported Kathy Plum contributed to this story