The West Virginia Board of Education mandated Tuesday that all West Virginia school students in grades PK-8 return to the classroom five days a week by March 3.

Some county school systems had already adopted that operational method.

Elementary and middle school students will remain in class five days a week regardless of a county school system's color on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' county alert system map, according to a motion adopted this week by the WVBE. Counties don't have the option of implementing full county-wide remote learning for elementary and middle school students, the motion read, although local boards of education will have the ability to close individual classrooms or schools if necessary for health reasons.

The state board's motion also said that students in grades 9-12 will attend in-person class unless their county is red on the DHHR county alert system map. The state board recommended that high school students attend five days per week if their county stays out of the red.

At all levels, families with students enrolled in virtual learning can continue in that format.

The Fayette County Board of Education made a move headed in the new direction last Thursday when it unanimously approved a plan to send students back to school buildings four days a week on March 1, with each Wednesday slated to be a remote learning day that would also have been utilized for cleaning schools and performing follow-up contact tracing. The county has been in blended model for several weeks.

When the Fayette board approved Superintendent Gary Hough's recommendation Thursday, it included a caveat that the county would follow any future directive issued by the state BOE.

Hough said Tuesday the entire Fayette school system will return to in-person five-day instruction on March 1. Fayette schools will continue to dismiss 45 minutes early each day, Hough said.

He said the possibility of more Covid-19 cases in school will exist, since more students will be in the buildings than when the blended model was the norm. "Exposure issues will probably increase," Hough said.

Hough said if school officials suspect there are one or more cases in a particular school, they will continue to work with the health department and take all the necessary safety precautions.

According to a press release from the West Virginia Department of Education, Dr. Clay Marsh, the state's coronavirus czar, presented data to the WVBE regarding the transmission of Covid-19. In line with national research, the state's data indicates minimal transmissions within schools, especially among younger learners, according to the WVDE press release.

State officials say the structure of the school system and school day, along with practiced mitigations (which will remain in place), have been effective in keeping schools safe, according to the data.

"Early in the pandemic, we thought school transmission was closely tied to community transmission rates," Marsh said in the press release. "We've since learned this is not correct.

"We are finding that when mitigations are followed, schools are among the safest places for our children."

"The decisions we are making are based on data," said WVBE President Miller Hall. "According to Dr. Marsh, it is safe to return to five days of instruction for our elementary and middle school students, and that is what we must do.

"Children don't have equal access to technology, and it is very important to restore the support of the school system in the lives of our children. It’s time to return."

To view the WVBE motion, go to https://wvde.us/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/In-Person-Instruction-WVBEMotionREVISED-v3.pdf.

• • •

Prior to an executive session and a potential vote during last Thursday's Fayette BOE meeting, board member Steve Slockett asked Fayette County Health Officer Dr. Anita Stewart if she and Fayette County Health Department Administrator Teri Harlan would support the board if it decided to send students back to schools five days a week in the near future.

"Right now our incidence is decreasing, which is reassuring to me," Stewart said, adding that "it needs to be watched."

"Our goals would be to follow the mitigation practices (consistent mask usage, hand hygiene, following sneezing etiquette, eliminating large groups, cleaning and disinfecting, and social distancing to the largest extent possible) to the best of our abilities," Stewart said. "If we can do that, whatever you guys decide to do, I would support."

In spite of improved Covid-19 numbers, board member Marion Tanner said she's concerned that a better status for Fayette County exhibited on the DHHR's daily county alert map than on a recent CDC map could lead to a "false sense of security" and result in a situation in which "we let our guard down and we could see an outbreak again."

The board held a special hearing prior to Thursday's regular meeting to discuss two potential school calendars for the 2021-22 school year.

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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