CHARLESTON — Current outbreaks of COVID-19 in West Virginia K-12 public schools have led to 279 confirmed cases, according to the state.
That’s up from 150 around two weeks ago.
Outbreaks are defined as two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases “with onsets within a 14-day period, who are epidemiologically linked in the school setting (e.g. same bus ride to school, after-school sports, classroom) do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing,” according to Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler.
“If the problem is bad enough that we think, really and truly, we need to close a school, we’re going to close a school,” Gov. Jim Justice said Monday at his COVID-19 news briefing when asked about the school outbreaks. “That’s just all there is to it.”
He didn’t provide any specific threshold of cases that would warrant shuttering classrooms again. He and other state officials spoke Monday of their new push to vaccinate 16- to 18-year-old students, now that most school employees have been given the opportunity to be inoculated.
Adding in private schools, there were over 290 confirmed cases from ongoing outbreaks as of Monday morning. Of that total, 266 of the infected were students and 29 were staff, according to Adler.
Schools report COVID-19 cases to their local health departments, who then report it to the state, Adler said. Since the start of 2021, there have been 464 infections reported from outbreaks at both public and private schools — 396 among students and 68 among staff, Adler said.
A majority of infections are among 12- to 17-year-olds, and nearly half of the 97 outbreaks that triggered all these cases since the start of 2021 have been related to high schools, she wrote.
In January, Justice pushed to reopen classrooms, except for high schools in counties labeled red on his color-coded school reopening map. The map colors are based very roughly on the spread of COVID-19 across counties, not just within schools.
Later that month, the West Virginia Board of Education ordered all counties to reopen classrooms starting with at least a couple days a week. Effective March 3, the state school board raised the minimum to four-to-five days a week.
And on March 24, Justice signed an executive order freeing high schools from being the last schools that had to close in red counties. His order said these schools still should coordinate with their local health departments to manage any in-person instruction limitations those departments may advise.
“We’ve gotta be in school,” Justice said. “We know the devastation by not being in school, and so we’ve got to be in school, so we’re watching it every day.”
Asked about the school cases Monday, state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh pointed to the U.K. variant of the virus.
“To date, we have not seen active spread in the classroom with the appropriate mitigation measures,” said Marsh, who’s also vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences at West Virginia University.
“But we know that the U.K. variant is infecting more younger people, as well as other variants like the California variant, which we’ve also seen,” he said. “So, ultimately, we know spread is increasing in younger people. If we are very careful in the classroom, we still see it as being very safe.”
Earlier in the conference, Marsh said “this U.K. variant is making children sick, it’s making young adults sick, it’s making 30- to 40-year-olds sick, putting people in the hospital. It’s different.”