Education, Healthcare, Latest News, State Government

Justice: All elementary and middle schools may resume in-person starting Jan. 19

Vaccine program for age 80 and up begins

Big changes for the schools and an aggressive vaccination program for seniors topped the news coming from the governor’s Wednesday COVID-19 briefing.

Starting Jan. 19, all elementary and middle schools in the state, no matter their map color, will be allowed to return to in-person learning. High schools in orange counties will also be allowed to go in-person. Red-county high schools will remain virtual, Justice said.

Justice prefaced his list of school announcements by reasserting that remote learning is failing. A full third of kids are flunking at least one core class. Child welfare referrals to CPA have fallen 50-54% monthly, meaning kids in dangerous home situations are being spotted. Kids need consistent live engagement from a teacher.

“We have got to get our kids back in school, that’s all there is to it,” he said.

On the positive side, he said, “Our much younger kids are so much safer at our schools.” Data shows that the COVID-19 transmission rate was just .02% for students and .3% for teachers and staff for the first semester 2020.

School will resume Jan. 4, state Superintendent Clayton Burch said, and red and orange counties will remain fully virtual during the two week period designed to allow schools to prepare for the new program.

Winter sports are deferred until March 1, Justice said. He doesn’t know yet how that will affect spring sports.

To enhance school safety, the state will offer vaccines to all teachers, staff and service personnel age 50 and up in next two to three weeks; after that they’ll loop back and catch those under 50. Adjutant General James Hoyer said vaccines will be going out to 44 counties for this starting next week.

Burch anticipated people will ask why they’re changing course now. He repeated some of Justice points about disease transmission, CPS referrals and the failure of virtual learning. And they understand more about the virus and its bearing on schools now than they did in the fall.

He emphasized that the schools will need to double down on mitigation strategies. Outbreaks occur when they don’t follow the strategies: masks, hygiene, distancing, disinfecting, no large gatherings, contact tracing.

Justice said local control will remain intact. He doesn’t have and doesn’t want the authority to order schools to reopen; local boards will decide. And Burch said families who want to stay virtual will still have that option.

The Dominion Post asked why red-county high schools won’t be going back with the rest.

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said data shows that when mitigation measures are followed, in-class transmission at all levels is rare.

But a study in Iceland, he said, shows that those 15 and under are 50% less likely to catch and spread the virus than those 16 and up – partially because of the virus’ innate ability to affect the younger group.

Also, data shows middle schools are less likely to be spreading areas than high schools, he said, and elementary schools are less likely to be spreading areas than middle schools. “If there is a place we’ve seen more it’s in older children and high schools.” And that includes out-of-school socialization and parties.

That’s the reason, he said, to exercise more care with the older kids. They want them in school but they also want them safe.

Asked how kids will get caught up on what they’ve already lost, Justice said, “It’s going to be really difficult to do.” He referred the question to Burch, who said the current reopening plan is just the first step in mitigating the widening learning gap. There will be a lot of work leading into 2021. “It’s not going to be a quick fix catching everybody up.”

Senior vaccines

Justice said that with ongoing concerns about the state’s vulnerable elderly, starting immediately vaccines would be offered to those 80 and up. Doses were on their way to 82 locations across state including primary care providers, health clinics and health departments.

The state is also planning to hold several vaccination events for those 80 and up at National Guard armories and other designated sites. Details are to be announced and posted on the governor’s website, and vaccines at these events will be first-come-first-served based on available supplies, he said. “We can only give you what we’ve got.”

This pivot, as he called it, is intended to save lives and decrease hospitalizations. It also will get more to the vaccine doses in stock into peoples arms. As of Wednesday, only 37,682 of 86,800 doses received – 43.4% – had been administered and Justice didn’t consider that acceptable. He wants people vaccinated, and the faster we go through our stock the more justification we have to request and receive more.

The Monongalia County Health Department explained its initial role in the program. MCHD will be providing 100 doses of vaccine to those 80 and over – first-come-first-served – from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday Jat the National Guard Readiness Center at 90 Army Band Way in Morgantown.

This will be the first of several similar events, MCHD said.

“We are confident that we can conduct this event safely for all,” said Dr. Lee B. Smith, MCHD executive director and county health officer. 

Individuals who get vaccinated can not have had any kind of vaccine – influenza, shingles, pneumonia, etc. – two weeks prior to Monday, MCHD said. “We don’t want people to come out for the vaccine and then have to be turned away because they have had another vaccine recently.”

Everyone should wear a mask and those getting the vaccine should bring ID as well as, if they have it, any health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid information, MCHD said. The vaccines are free and no one will be turned away if they don’t have health insurance. However, MCHD would like to recoup the cost of the administration of the vaccine.

Justice added later in a press release that residents are urged not to show up at local health departments or National Guard armories for vaccination unless a vaccination clinic for those age 80 and older is scheduled. “Please do not overwhelm pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, or the COVID-19 hotline by calling repeatedly.”

Continue to monitor for information about COVID-19 vaccines including when vaccination clinic sites become available, Justice said.

Other COVID news

Justice said his team worked with higher education leadership to test all students, staff and faculty as they return to campus in January after the Christmas break – as they did when college started in the fall.

They are also looking to test everyone weekly but don’t know if it will be possible in terms of logistics or cost.

Finally, Justice said he is designating $3.5 million in CARES money to WVU Medicine for the Morgantown Community Resources Ramada Inn Project.

The former hotel will see repairs, upgrades and renovations for its roof, HVAC, sprinklers, kitchen, elevators and other areas to house social service agencies for a central base to reduce COVID spread and impact among the Morgantown area’s most vulnerable populations, he said.

Tweet David Beard@dbeardtdp Email