KCHD/GazetteMail: Mask Mandate the Right Call

KCHD/GazetteMail: Mask Mandate the Right Call
Posted on 08/20/2021

Kanawha County Schools made the difficult but correct decision to require all students, teachers and personnel to wear masks for the time being.

Schools in West Virginia’s largest county, which resumed classes last week, had started off requiring face coverings only for those in pre-K through fifth grade, along with staff at those schools. It’s now evident that policy would put students and school employees at risk, with the surge of the COVID-19 delta variant, which affects children at a greater rate than previous strains of the virus.

As of Wednesday, there were already about 90 students at John Adams Middle School in quarantine because of the virus, along with a similar number of students at Horace Mann Middle, according to school officials.

The policy change was implemented by Superintendent Tom Williams without the approval of the school board, something his position allows him to do, according to a spokeswoman. Williams probably can guess this decision will set up a contentious discussion with the board, which voted 3-2 for the previous policy, with one dissenting member, Jim Crawford, wanting no mask mandates at all. The move also probably will draw the ire of some parents.

Divisiveness isn’t a guarantee, but going off of everything that’s happened since this pandemic started, it seems more likely than not. This could be a test for Gov. Jim Justice and officials with the West Virginia Board of Education, who shifted responsibilities on public health policies to county school districts, promising them local control. Will that control stay local if there’s vocal opposition?

Regardless, Williams didn’t make this choice seeking popularity. He’s doing what’s necessary to protect the health of Kanawha County students, teachers and staff, which remains the No. 1 concern during this ongoing pandemic.

No one wants students, especially young children, to have to wear masks. However, considering that the state went from less than 1,000 active COVID-19 cases in early July to more than 6,000 last week, when Kanawha County schools opened, and now to more than 8,100, as of Thursday, the rapid effect the delta variant is clear.

If more West Virginians had gotten the vaccine before schools reopened, this probably wouldn’t be happening. In the meantime, school officials have to use what’s at their disposal to control what they can control. Masks give them a better chance of stopping outbreaks, not to mention keeping schools open. Most educators agree, and test scores have indicated online learning is a less-effective method for learning in West Virginia.

So, if the desired outcome is that students receive better educations, which means schools remain open to in-person learning, this is the way it has to be. West Virginia University made the same decision Tuesday, and it seems probable that other school districts will do the same. It’s only a question of when, and, as this virus repeatedly has shown, it’s better to act sooner than to wait until a problem is obvious and out of control.

Kanawha health leader applauds school system’s decision on mask mandate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As Kanawha County Schools and neighboring school district Putnam County Schools both changed their COVID-19 protocols to require masks in schools for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status, the chief health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is applauding those decisions.

Dr. Sherri Young, who is also the executive director of the health department (KCHD), told MetroNews the best move for school systems across the state is to mask up and encourage vaccines for those eligible.

“I am very proud of the fact that they took the measures to protect kids by enforcing the mask mandate,” she said. “It can be a difficult decision, sometimes it can be unpopular. But when you take a look at the increase in COVID, especially in that age group in Kanawha County, this was clearly the right move.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Kanawha County Schools reported 49 COVID-19 cases in schools. The school system’s first day of class was on August 9. On Wednesday, the school system changed its original guideline of masks being optional for any staff and students in grades 6-12 to requiring masks starting Friday.

Putnam County Schools updated its guidance to requiring masks for all indoor activities and on buses beginning Friday for all students and employees regardless if they have been vaccinated or not. “This requirement will be in effect for 30 days and will be reviewed by health officials at the end of this 30-day period,” the school system said in a statement.

Not every school system is following Kanawha and Putnam counties. The school board for the state’s second largest school district, Cabell County Schools, voted on Thursday to maintain its current guidance of masks being optional.

Young said having mask requirements allows for students to stay in the classroom while making it as safe as possible for everyone involved in education.

“We don’t want to wait until we are in an area of high transmission to say ‘wear your mask.’ We want it to be a clear message from public health and the community that yes, we want to protect our kids and yes, they should be wearing masks in schools,” Young said.

Young told MetroNews she could not rule out the possibility of schools having to shut down due to the virus. She noted there is no ‘magic number’ for cases as to when she would recommend it.

“If we were to see a sharp rise in any one area or it appears that this is adversely affecting children at an alarming rate, we will raise the alarm and make the recommendation as the time comes,” Young said.

There has been a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Kanawha County. Young said in the early summer months, KCHD would see 50 cases a day for a few weeks, then it changed to between 60 and 70 per day. On Wednesday, KCHD reported 110 cases in the past 24 hours.

Young said the good news is that more people have been getting the first and second doses of a vaccine than in recent weeks. According to the latest report from the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), 68.8% of those aged 12 and older in Kanawha County have been fully vaccinated.

Young said it’s important for parents of children in schools to have a discussion with trusted healthcare leaders about the vaccine and kids. She said that there is no doubt that the vaccine works because the numbers show it.

“When we look at the ultimate goal of keeping people healthy and keeping people alive. When we look at the rate of people across the country, millions of individuals that have the vaccine, that less than one percent of the people on ventilators and less than one percent of the people who have died have been vaccinated,” Young said.

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