W.Va. lets more classrooms reopen than Harvard recommends | News

Eufemia Didonato

CHARLESTON — No, the colors in West Virginia’s school reopening map don’t match the Harvard Global Health Institute map that inspired it. Social media and reporters have highlighted this repeatedly. Yes, West Virginia altered both the data considered and the data trigger points for changing county color codes to indicate […]

CHARLESTON — No, the colors in West Virginia’s school reopening map don’t match the Harvard Global Health Institute map that inspired it. Social media and reporters have highlighted this repeatedly.

Yes, West Virginia altered both the data considered and the data trigger points for changing county color codes to indicate a greater prevalence of COVID-19.

West Virginia’s map even features an extra color, among a string of changes Gov. Jim Justice made deviating from the Harvard map. But even before those alterations, the state and Harvard’s approach diverged. A look beyond the rainbow of colors shows how and why.

State officials chose from the outset to make colors on the West Virginia map mean different things for counties and schools than what the Harvard model suggested. For example, West Virginia’s yellow allows high school students to return to classrooms full time, while Harvard’s guidance suggests only part time or less.

The state largely rejected Harvard’s recommendation to prioritize providing enough space for younger students to learn in person.

“Keeping levels of risk low for young children via pandemic resilient teaching and learning spaces is more readily achievable than doing so for high school-age students and the adult educators and staff in the school building,” according to Harvard guidelines released in July.

The Kanawha County Board of Education is opening classrooms starting Monday, Oct. 12, for all registered students. A county school spokeswoman said available data on class sizes was at least two weeks old, the projected numbers are in flux and the schools are trying to fix this.

Students cannot be distanced by even 3.2 feet in at least one classroom in 20 elementary schools, 10 middle schools and six high schools, according to rough available projections. The number of rooms where that standard could not be met was estimated in the double digits at Riverside High School.

Another indicator of the disconnect is the color yellow.

West Virginia allows high schools in yellow counties (and gold counties, which are essentially West Virginia’s custom extension of yellow) to open for five days a week of in-person instruction.

Harvard recommends yellow counties prioritize providing enough space for Pre-K through 5 to learn safely in person. Only then should counties consider allowing grades 6-8 into classrooms, Harvard suggests.

Only when sufficient space is provided for those middle schoolers should counties consider in-person learning for high schoolers. Harvard says only a portion of high schoolers should be allowed on campus when the county is coded yellow. Harvard’s approach suggests using such buildings as churches for younger learners.

Younger students are often less able to learn on their own. Some research suggests they are less likely to spread the virus than high schoolers.

“Once the stock of pandemic resilient teaching and learning spaces is inventoried, (school) districts can evaluate whether they can open only grades K-5 or also grades 6-8,” Harvard’s guidance says. “Districts will recover space for full opening of grades 9-12 as incidence levels fall. Questions of staffing levels will also be pertinent to this inventory.”

West Virginia offered students an online-only option, which reduced in-person attendance. Officials repeatedly have said a majority of families opted to send their children back in person, perhaps because of lack of child care or broadband access. In Kanawha, where nearly half of students are online only, social distancing is an issue.

Beyond schools — but related to their safety because community spread impacts the whole community — Harvard recommends closing bars and indoor dining when counties are coded yellow. West Virginia hasn’t mandated that.

Not only does West Virginia use a higher cutoff than Harvard for how many average new daily COVID-19 cases are needed to make a county yellow, but the state also considers whether the percentage of positive test results is below 3%. If so, the county is coded green even if its average new daily cases are high enough to be coded yellow.

As of Wednesday, Harvard’s map showed West Virginia with just two green counties, Ritchie and Wirt. West Virginia’s version showed green in most of the 55 counties.

Asked Friday why West Virginia high schools are allowed to open full time under yellow, Justice responded: “If really and truly I thought we couldn’t provide that safe atmosphere and everything, then I would say we don’t go. You know, but, from the standpoint of looking at Kanawha County, I think overwhelmingly what is happening is the parents and the people want to send their kids to school. We have absolutely left it to local control.”

West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said, “As I understand it, the counties have the ability to decide — and the parents, as the governor said — to decide how they want to, to execute the in-person learning, whether that’s all in person, blended or even online.

“And so certainly the map provides the parameters in which people can work under, but it doesn’t define the mechanism that the schools need to undergo.”

Unlike Harvard, West Virginia Department of Education guidelines do not recommend prioritizing younger students for in-person learning, though state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch, recognized for his work on the state’s universal prekindergarten system, has noted younger students are less likely to learn independently.

In June, Burch revealed a draft version of statewide reopening recommendations that suggested elementary students attend classrooms four days a week, while middle and high schoolers attend at least two days per week in person and learn remotely for the rest.

“We believe they do need to be in school as much and as often as possible,” Burch said of the younger students during the state Board of Education’s June meeting.

After state school board members questioned the guidance, Burch’s Department of Education removed the suggestions for treating older students differently.

Education Department spokeswoman Christy Day wrote in an email that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations provided the “foundation for West Virginia’s protocols that were developed and implemented under the purview” of several groups. She said those included the state Education Department, state health officials and county education leaders.

“The re-entry process outlines core measures to protect public health for all students and allow them to return to school when it is safe to do so,” Day wrote. “State and county leaders have repeatedly explained that in-person instruction is direly needed for all students when possible because of the challenges the state faces with remote learning, including broadband access limitations.”

Mason County students are on a “blended” schedule, with two days a week of in-person education for about half the in-person students and the other days online only, Superintendent Jack Cullen said.

He said the county will be on this schedule through at least Nov. 2. Teachers like it because it allows for more personal attention and fewer discipline issues, he said.

“Instead of 25 (students) trying to ask a question, you have 10 to 12,” he said.

County officials considered in-person elementary classes four days a week.

Not only do these younger students need more help with using computers, Cullen said, but “you basically learn how to read by third grade, and you read to learn for the rest of your life.”

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