In a dramatic and bold move, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced changes in school reopening and vaccination schedules last Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 30.

Under the new plan, all elementary and middle schools statewide will reopen following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The state’s color-coded mapping system will no longer apply to the lower schools.

High schools will reopen using the mapping system, but there has been a modification to this. High schools in counties with classifications up to and including the orange designation will have in-person classes. Only schools in the red category will remain in the remote learning mode. However, Mingo County Board of Education President James Ed Baisden is leading a campaign to allow high schools in red counties to have in-person classes as well.

Justice said the reason for the difference between the primary and secondary schools is because the transmission rate for children aged 14 years and younger is less than that for those 15 years and older.

“We have got to get our kids back in school,” Justice said. “Virtual learning modes do not work for most students without consistent, live engagement from a teacher and from other students in a student’s own school. We are failing; failing across the board.”

Justice said statistics from the West Virginia Department of Education shows one-third of all students are making failing grades in at least one core class as the schools have switched back and forth between in-person classes and remote learning.

“Our schools are safe. The transmission rate (of the COVID-19 virus) in our schools during the first semester was only 0.02 percent for students and 0.3 percent for staff,” Justice continued.

The governor also unveiled a new plan that began general populace vaccinations as early as last week. The plan is specifically for those in older age ranges because the COVID-19 virus has been the most impactful among the state’s elderly residents.

Those aged 80 years and older will be able to be vaccinated on a first-come, first-served basis as vaccine supplies continue to be available. Once that group is completed, the range will be lower to ages 70-79 followed by ages 60-69. Justice said that doses of the vaccine were sent to 82 organizations across the state to begin the process. This week vaccination clinics were set up at various national guard armories across the state. The Mingo County Health Department was included in this distribution and the agency began conducting the vaccines since Wednesday, Jan. 6 (see related story).

“The more shots we can get in the arms of people — especially those of a significant age — the more lives we can save,” Justice said. “This thing is boiling down to a matter of minutes not days — minutes.”

Also, Justice said funds have been secured for testing of all students, faculty and staff at all colleges and universities in the state prior to the beginning of the spring semester.

The governor said all the changes announced have involved “a lot of effort and a lot of collaboration” among the state’s top-level administrators, education representatives and medical experts. “We have perfected them to the best of our abilities,” Justice said.

Another change addressed by the governor was that of winter sports. Those activities will not resume until Monday, March 1.

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