Several North Central West Virginia school systems to require masks, others only

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WV News) — While some school systems in North Central West Virginia are only recommending that students and staff wear masks this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, other school systems have announced plans to require masks for all ages, regardless of vaccine status, at the start of the academic year.

Harrison County Superintendent Dora Stutler has told WV News there are no plans to mandate mask wearing in schools unless something significant changes or the governor requires masks statewide.

After speaking with the Harrison-Clarksburg Health Department officials, Stutler said department Administrator Chad Bundy mentioned that mask wearing would lead to fewer quarantines. However, without a state mandate, Stutler still ls not looking to mandate masks.

“I don’t anticipate that there will be a mask mandate put out,” she said. “We will continue to have mitigation strategies in place and equipment and PPE available, but at this time, it is not my intention to require masks unless the governor mandates that.”

Marion County Superintendent Dr. Donna Hage announced Tuesday that masks will not be mandated in schools for the start of the fall semester, although the Marion County Health Department is recommending that masks be worn.

Lloyd White, administrator of the department, attended the Marion Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening to discuss his thoughts on the issue, but not before Hage sent out an official statement regarding masks in schools.

“At this time, the health department is recommending masks regardless of age or vaccination status,” Hage’s statement read. “This is not a mask mandate from the health department, and so we continue to ask families and staff to take the mask guidance as a recommendation — not a mandate at this time — to reduce transmission further so that we can continue to keep schools open for face-to-face instruction 5 days a week. … We know that this is the best way to service our students as they recover instruction and feel supported with mental health needs.”

White said at Tuesday’s board meeting that masks, social distancing and proper hand hygiene are still strongly recommended in schools, especially with the rise of the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“I don’t like masks more than anybody else, but it’s a necessary evil,” he said. “People have asked me before if I’m concerned, and I’ve always said that, yes, I’m concerned. But I’ve got to tell you: I’m worried about what the future may hold with COVID-19 and particularly the Delta variant. What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is alarming, to say the least. …

“Our goal this year is to make sure that we have in-school instruction and that we do what we can to decrease the number of cases. I realize that some of our decisions aren’t popular. However, I will tell you that if we save one student’s life or one faculty member’s life or one school employee’s life, then it’s worth it. We are where we are through no fault of our own, but it is our choice on how long we stay here. … If we work with each other and support each other, then I think we can get through this school year as best we can.”

When asked, though, White said a mask mandate isn’t out of the question in the weeks and months to come, especially if the pandemic continues to worsen.

“I can tell you that I absolutely have no problem changing the recommendation to a mandate if in fact it’s justified,” he said. “I hesitate to do that. And trust me: It’ll only be when I’m absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s necessary to decrease the number of cases and the deaths. It’s not something that I would take lightly.”

While White is in favor of wearing masks, he said the best defense against the virus is getting vaccinated, and he encouraged everyone in the community to get their shots and allow their children to get them.

“We’re still going to encourage getting vaccinated, and we’re going to encourage and recommend everyone who is inside to wear a mask,” he said. “Masks are effective in decreasing the risks of transmission. … It’s not about a debate on whether we should or shouldn’t (get a vaccine). It’s about putting the facts out there so everyone can make their own decision in terms of being vaccinated. At the end of the day, a vaccine is a personal choice, but I would encourage everyone to consider the cost and the benefits.”

Doddridge County Schools also won’t be requiring masks this fall, according to Superintendent Adam Cheeseman.

“First and foremost, we continue to take the safety of all of our children as our highest priority, and we will follow all safety precautions from the state Department of Education and implement all directives of our local health department,” he said.

With over 56% of eligible Doddridge County residents having received a COVID-19 vaccine shot, Cheeseman said masks will not be required, but are welcome if students wish to wear them.

The Lewis County Board of Education voted to reopen schools without a mask mandate.

“Face coverings will be recommended, but not required, for all individuals inside a Lewis County building and outside on our school property when social distancing cannot be maintained,” Superintendent Dr. Robin Lewis said in a letter to families. “Masking and other safety requirements will remain fluid as we monitor transmission rates within our communities and schools. We will make adjustments as needed and/or directed.”

The Lewis County school system plans to continue to follow DHHR guidance in regard to isolation and quarantine, and school nurses will work in collaboration with other local health officials for the safety and well-being of students and staff, Lewis said.

Additionally, schools will maintain physical distancing as much as possible, Lewis added.

Barbour County Schools Superintendent Jeff Woofter had initially planned to require masks only when riding a school bus, and to highly recommend, but not require, masks in classrooms, particularly for those who had not been vaccinated.

But due to the increase in COVID-19 cases in Barbour County, Woofter announced just before the weekend that masks will have to be worn indoors by school staff, students and visitors.

“Due to the rapid rise in COVID cases in Barbour County, and in collaboration with our local Health Department, we will be requiring masks be worn indoors by all staff, students and visitors at all times except when eating. … We are hopeful that this will only be a short-term need,” he said.

In Upshur County, the Board of Education met Tuesday evening and voted to require staff and students to wear a face covering as a mitigation strategy against COVID-19.

Everyone in the Upshur school system will be required to wear a face covering if they are indoors, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated, according to a statement from the board.

Upshur County continues to see high levels of COVID-
19 cases. Last week, the county reported the highest level of cases in West Virginia.

On the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ color-coded County Alert System map, Upshur was in red as of Wednesday. Red is the highest level, indicating a county has an elevated number of new cases and an elevated percentage of COVID tests that return positive.

“We are also going to continue many of the same mitigation strategies that were in place last year, such as cleaning classrooms, touchpoints, cleaning school buses every day and washing hands frequently,” said Dr. Jeffery Harvey, the Upshur school system’s director of safety and preparedness. “These strategies have been shown to keep our students and staff safe.”

Upshur Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis-Stankus stressed the importance of in-person…

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