Superintendent calls COVID-19 outbreaks inevitable
In most of West Virginia’s 55 public school districts, shoes are again squeaking across the floors of socially distanced hallways.
Students are again raising their hands in class discussions.
Football teams and marching bands have resumed making a happy racket on Friday nights.
Calls for class ring orders, student body elections and Thanksgiving basket sign-ups are also in the air, as everyone continues those tentative nudges toward normality.
The COVID-19 kind.
It’s been one month and four days since the state has gone back to school, after the coronavirus shut it all down in March.
State Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch on Tuesday released a snapshot of that first month.
While praising districts and their boards of education for working through the “many unknowns” related to the pandemic and its particulars, Burch said those districts now must work through another COVID-inevitability.
The inevitability of outbreaks in schools.
To date, he reports, 24 of the state’s 691 public schools are experiencing such occurrences.
West Virginia defines an “outbreak” as two or more confirmed cases among students or staff “epidemiologically linked” to a school setting.
That means sharing the same bus or classroom, or as fellow players on the football team, for example.
In Monongalia County, a handful of cases had already been reported at Morgantown High School, North Elementary and Clay-Battelle High, where an outside contracted employee working with the football team had tested positive.
Mon also began the school year remotely, as it was in the red designation for weeks on the County Alert Map.
Down-state in Mingo County, meanwhile, the superintendent of schools announced his positive diagnosis of COVID-19, as did the principal of Mingo Central High.
“We knew from the beginning there would be cases in our schools,” Burch said, “but the immediate response to mitigate the infection from spreading has been critical to keeping schools safe and open.”
Now, he said, it’s a matter of taking the “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten” approach of common sense and compassion — as more cases are sure to follow.
“We must stay on guard, wear our masks and practice the other protocols, if we want in-person instruction and extracurriculars to continue,” the superintendent said.
“We need everyone to engage in consistent, dedicated and long-term vigilance, so that our children may have the opportunity to enjoy some semblance of normalcy in their schools.”
Already entrenched issues in some districts were only magnified by the coronavirus, he said.
They include the cases of some schools where remote learning was forced, due to a lack of substitute teachers, for example.
There’s also the fact that 70% of Mountain State families, in surveys sanctioned by the state Department of Education, said over the summer they wanted some form of in-person learning for their children.
“We had some serious challenges in front of us before COVID-19 hit our state,” Burch said.
“The pandemic has compounded them, making it even more imperative that our children get back to school and in the care of our educators when it is safe to do so.”
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, may have reported a possible silver lining to the pandemic cloud Monday during a press briefing.
Rates of transmissions in public schools, he said then, amount to less than .1% for students.
Make that less than .2% for teachers, he added — with all the cases seemingly generated by the outlying community, and not within the school building.