CHARLESTON — Dale Lee, head of one of West Virginia’s largest school worker unions, called Monday for the governor to close classrooms for the rest of 2020 because of COVID-19.
“It is clear the coronavirus is spreading in our state at a very rapid rate,” Lee said in a news release. “Cases this fall have far outnumbered the cases in the spring and experts predict the worst outbreaks are yet to occur.”
West Virginia as a whole hit record highs last week in new cases and hospitalizations, as deaths continue to mount.
But Gov. Jim Justice, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch and a couple of state health officials have said COVID-19 spread in schools is minimal.
“The numbers in the schools still remain pretty daggum good,” Justice said Monday. “And the schools themselves still remain somewhat of a safe haven. Now, we’re watching it.”
Burch said Thursday that about 30 county school systems had moved further away from what Lee wants, by increasing their in-person instruction offerings to four or five days a week. Kanawha County has offered five days a week for a month now, although certain schools, such as George Washington High, are shuttered.
Shannon McBee, a state Bureau for Public Health epidemiologist, summed it up this way for the state Board of Education Thursday: “School is safe.”
McBee told board members there were 84 “outbreaks” in public and private kindergarten through 12th-grade schools from the beginning of August, before the school year began statewide Sept. 8, to the middle of last week.
Those outbreaks combined produced 357 COVID-19 cases among staff (199) and students (158). The state had about 204,000 students attending public schools in person at least part-time as of Oct. 1.
McBee said there are “2 (to) 24 cases per outbreak, so what that tells us is we’re seeing very little transmission in the school setting.” The median-sized outbreak totaled four cases, she said.
One-fifth of the 84 outbreaks occurred among sports teams, and 37% occurred among staff only, she said.
“Teachers are doing a really great job while the kids are in session,” she said. “But sometimes they get a little lax, and they gather with their friends after work or before work.”
The state’s definition of outbreak differs slightly between two linked documents on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ website. Both definitions say an outbreak is two or more cases among students or school staff from separate households within 14 days.
One definition says the cases must be linked in the “school setting,” such as on the same bus or in the same classroom, and must not be among people who were “close contacts” in another setting. The other definition doesn’t say that being close contacts in another setting means it’s not a school outbreak.
The West Virginia United Caucus, a group with members from multiple unions that supported staying with distance education when the state was reopening classrooms earlier this fall, created its own COVID-19 case tracker.
The caucus doesn’t exclude cases that aren’t part of a “school outbreak.” Instead, it’s reporting all student and staff cases it has heard about from counties, whether it’s possibly one person getting infected outside of school or not. And it’s citing its sources, such as news releases from county school systems.
Through Thursday, the caucus’ method counted 1,075 cases, roughly triple the amount McBee said were just related to outbreaks.
“An outbreak can miss a lot,” said Jay O’Neal, a Kanawha County teacher and member of the caucus. “For instance, in a middle or high school especially, there’s various grades and various wings of a school, and an outbreak is only counting them if they’re in a core group or class.
“Schools are part of the community, and we want to reflect kind of the overall spread of COVID in the community.”
Even McBee’s data on just outbreaks showed they were increasing: five in August, 25 in September, 37 in October.
Lee, the union president, similarly asked back in August that the school year start with only distance education. As he did back then, Justice on Monday dismissed Lee’s request.
Justice, a Republican, suggested that union members find new representatives, after the West Virginia Education Association that Lee heads backed the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate in this month’s election. Justice pointed out that he won all of the state’s 55 counties.
“If I were a member paying dues and that’s what I was delivered by my union bosses, I would absolutely be looking elsewhere,” the governor said.
But Justice did express some openness to Lee’s call.
“From a standpoint (of) should it be considered — without question, it should be considered,” the governor said. “You know, has there already been a lot of discussions as far as not going back to school and following maybe with what the universities are doing (staying remote after Thanksgiving), there’s already been tons of discussions over the last, probably, 10 days in regard to that.”
Lee was reelected as the union’s president last summer.
“I listen to our members and I’m proud to be their voice,” he said.