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West Virginia Ditching Color-Coded School Map

Gov. Jim Justice discusses Wednesday the state ending its use of the color-coded COVID-19 school map. (Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — With nearly three months left in the school year, Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday the color-coded map used to determine whether to close schools for in-person learning is going away.

“We’re going to stop using our color-code system for high schools in West Virginia,” Justice said during his Wednesday coronavirus briefing at the Capitol in Charleston. “This system has been very valuable to us…it has been argumentative at times, but it has served us well.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System color-coded map, only Jefferson County is in the red as of Wednesday, meaning that high schools in that county had to close for in-person learning. Justice said all West Virginia high schools will be open full-time unless there is a significant outbreak that requires them to close as determined by local health departments.

Justice said the decision was due to most teachers and school service personnel being vaccinated for COVID-19, combined with the decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths since January.

“It really protected us in many ways, but this map has outlived its time now and we need to move forward and everything,” Justice said.

Justice and state health and education officials unveiled the color-coded map last August to determine what schools could reopen when schools resumed in September.

Starting off with four colors and loosely based on the Harvard Global Health Institute’s color-coded map to track infection rates, West Virginia’s map grew to five colors, ranging from green to red, and used both an infection rate and a percent of positivity to determine if it was safe to allow in-person school.

During the fall, any school in the orange and red categories had to switch to distance learning until the county’s colors went into the gold, yellow, or green categories. That changed when students returned to school in January, with only high schools being required to close when they enter the red category.

The map system was controversial, both for parents who wanted schools open and for teachers and school service personnel wanting schools either to remain closed or for schools to switch to hybrid learning models. Two lawsuits were launched against the state’s map and metrics, with both judges siding with the state to uphold the map.

While both hospitalizations have ticked up slightly over the last week, they are still significantly below their January peaks. Health officials credit the quick work by the state at vaccine distribution, particularly among those age 65 and older. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, said the concern now is an increase in COVID-19 cases among young people ages 16 to 29.

“There’s really two sides to this pandemic,” Marsh said. “We’ve focused on saving lives and reducing hospitalizations side, but there is also the spread of the infection side.”

Marsh said U.S. health officials have noted Europe is being overrun with variants of the COVID-19 virus, with some larger states starting to see some variants. Marsh said they want to limit spread of variants in West Virginia, particularly by younger people who may have asymptomatic infections.

“We know our younger people … is where this spread is taking place,” Marsh said. “We are starting to see those variant viruses grow in this younger population.”

Marsh said when variants are found in the state, more aggressive mitigation will occur, such as requiring people infected with the variants to self-quarantine for 14 days. Contact tracing efforts will also increase.

Also announced Wednesday, Justice said that live music can restart at midnight. Justice had previously allowed indoor live music to resume but prohibited any singing or wind instruments. Starting May 1, summer camps can resume.

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