Decision on school masks in WVa will be made at county level

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice celebrates his reelection at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. A federal judge on Wednesday, July 21, 2021, blocked West Virginia from enforcing a new ban on transgender athletes. The law, signed by Justice in April, would prohibit transgender athletes from competing in female sports in middle and high schools and colleges. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)

By JOHN RABY Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s public schools superintendent pushed back Wednesday against new recent federal guidelines that masks should be worn in schools, saying that any decision as the coronavirus pandemic drags into another school year will be left up to county officials.

West Virginia will start the school year this month with in-person learning in all 55 counties. State Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said the best protection against COVID-19 is getting vaccinated, washing hands and practicing safe hygiene.

“If you feel you need it, wear a mask,” Burch said at a news conference. “But really, local superintendents will be looking at that individually for their counties.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC cited new information about the ability of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus to spread among vaccinated people.

Gov. Jim Justice lifted an indoor mask mandate in June. On Wednesday, he also deferred any school mask decisions to the county school level “because they know best.”

For instance, in Kanawha County, the state’s largest, officials decided last week that masks will be mandated in elementary schools but not in higher grades.

Vaccinations are available to students ages 12 and older. Burch said 12 schools statewide with the highest percentage of vaccinations will be offered $50,000 cash prizes in October.

About 69% of state residents ages 12 and older have received at least one shot of the vaccine and about 57% are fully vaccinated, according to health figures. Demand for vaccines has been increasing lately. There were 7,500 shots administered statewide over the weekend, up 84% from the previous weekend total of 4,070.

Confirmed cases of the coronavirus have increased in the past month after falling to 12-month lows in July. But Justice reiterated that he has no plans to reissue a public mask mandate.

The number of daily confirmed cases statewide hit 242 Wednesday, the highest since there were 229 cases on May 19. The number of residents hospitalized from the virus has jumped to 185, up from 52 on July 4.

The number of active virus cases statewide has grown to 2,848 after bottoming out at 882 on July 9.

There have been at least 118 cases of the delta variant identified in 31 counties, including 24 in Berkeley County alone.