Gov. Justice announces return to school, March 1 start to winter sports

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Keyser's Summer Reid defends Frankfort's Halley Smith in last season's girls' basketball action at Frankfort.  Gov. Justice announced this week that winter sports cannot begin in West Virginia until March 1.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

On Wednesday, Dec. 30, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice broke up the monotony of his press briefings by delivering two bombshell pieces of information.  

Seemingly out of nowhere, and with no advanced warning that significant changes were in the pipeline, Justice announced major changes to both in-person academic instruction and the winter sports’ calendar.

“We have got to get our kids back in school,” Gov. Justice said. “During 2020 we learned that COVID-19 transmission rates in our schools during the first semester was 0.02 percent among students and 0.3 percent among staff. Our schools are safe when guidelines are followed.”

According to Justice, “We also learned, when we switched learning modes to virtual learning, the outcomes are not good.  One-third of our students are receiving failing grades in at least one of their core classes. The virtual learning models do not work for many students without consistent, live engagement from a teacher.

“Also, the DHHR reports that there is a reduction in child protective services referrals by and average of 50 to 54 percent per month,” Gov. Justice continued. “We’ve got a bunch of kids that are out there, really suffering.  So we must get back in school.”

With those words, Justice announced that beginning Tuesday, January 19, 2021, all West Virginia elementary and middle schools will move back to in-person learning and for a full five days per week. The same applies to high schools, so long as their county is not in the Red on the DHHR County Alert System map.

The changes means that the West Virginia Department of Education’s Saturday Education Map will no longer be published. In its place, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System Map will dictate whether high schools will have in-person instruction.

According to information garnered from Dec. 29 data on the DHHR map, 41 of West Virginia’s 55 counties are currently in the Red, meaning schools in those counties would not move to in-person instruction for high schools. Thirteen of the remaining 14 counties are just one step better than Red at Orange, and only one is Green.

The Dec. 29 date shows that Mineral County is currently Orange on the DHHR’s County Alert System map, meaning, of course, that if the new rules were in play currently both Keyser and Frankfort would be served by in-person learning.  It is important to note, however, that the new rules don’t kick in until Jan. 19 and that the numbers and corresponding color code are subject to daily change.

State superintendent of schools W. Clayton Burch agreed with the governor’s new plan, “The research shows it is safe to restore the in-person learning model for parents that chose this option for the children. We also know students are suffering because of the lack of in-person instruction. CPS referrals have decreased, student social and emotional well-being has suffered, and one-third of our students have received failing grades in at least one core subject area.  We imply have to get our students back in school, in person.”

While the news was good for advocates in favor of returning students to in-person instruction, it was bad for those advocating for the commencement of WVSSAC-sanctioned winter sports. Governor Justice announced in the press conference that the start of winter sports and extra-curricular activities would be pushed to March 1.

“We’ve got a lot of time left in the school year to be able to play and have the sports. Just think of the numbers we will have vaccinated at that time,” Gov. Justice expressed.  “Absolutely, we are very hopeful that this thing is going to turn and we can absolutely go to where we can have the sports indoors.  And we can do that starting March 1.”

Most recently, the start of winter sports practicing (basketball, wrestling, swimming) was slated for Jan. 11, with actual contests beginning approximately two weeks later.

The Jan. 11 date was announced on Nov. 13, at a time when some pre-season practices for winter sports had already began. The Nov. 13 announcement, in addition to moving the start of winter sports to Jan. 11, also pushed back the winter state championship contests into April, and the spring sports state championships into June.

The governor’s new start date of March 1 presents a multitude of questions relating to both winters sports and for spring sports set to follow. Many of the questions currently remain unanswered. There is, however, a ZOOM meeting scheduled for Jan. 5 to largely discuss the plans for spring sports.

One concern is that somehow spring sports will be majorly impacted in favor of winter sports having a fuller schedule.  Last year, may of the winter sports reached a full, 100 percent conclusion. The only thing fully effected was the very tail-end of basketball season.  Spring sports, however, never got off the ground and were a complete loss.

As the calendar has now turned from 2020 to 2021, there is indeed much reason for optimism with respect to COVID-19, much of this of course related to the vaccines that have already been giving in the first wave.  With this optimism comes the hope that our kids can return to school and that high school sports can more closely resemble normal.

West Virginians are one step closer to getting kids back in school, and despite the announcement that winter sports have been pushed to March 1, there is hope, at least, that once they begin, they won’t be stopped.  

If there’s anything the year 2020 taught us, it’s the realization that the only thing certain is uncertainty.