CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced an aggressive plan Wednesday to reopen public schools to in-person learning for younger students and offer coronavirus vaccines to residents age 80 and older and to teachers and school personnel over age 50.
The announcement comes as West Virginia ends the year with more than 1,300 deaths from the virus. The number of people hospitalized with the virus hit a record 797 on Tuesday.
"I think we've embarked on a bold plan, there's no question about that," Justice said at a news conference. "I have no power to calm the seas but I can tell you this is the best thing we can possibly do to minimize the risk."
Justice plans to reopen all middle and elementary schools statewide by Jan. 19, regardless of virus infection rates in their counties.
Justice said one-third of students are receiving failing grades in at least one core class, and that virtual-only learning models do not work for most students. He also cited figures that show virus infection rates in classrooms among younger students are "miniscule."
He also said Department of Health and Human Resources officials for months have seen child protection service referrals cut in half, meaning that abuse cases in homes aren't getting reported.
"We don't have eyes on children," said state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch. "Our biggest fear is that any children fall off the grid. We can't allow that to happen. There is no substitution for a teacher engaging with students in person."
High schools in counties that do not have the most critical virus transmission rates also will return to school. However, most counties of the state's 55 counties were in that red category.
Families with students who choose virtual learning-only methods can still use them, Justice said.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Justice's school announcement was "another example of making decisions without really having discussions with the education experts, those in the classrooms."
Lee said that even if teachers are vaccinated, they'll have to wait three weeks to get their second doses, and that will come well after the Jan. 19 timeline for reopening schools.
He said exposing students in the classroom also puts teachers, parents and grandparents at risk of catching the virus.
"At what cost is that education?" he said.
Justice also said all college students and faculty will be tested for the virus before classes resume on campus from the holiday break. He wants to be able to provide weekly testing at colleges but said he's unsure if that's possible due to cost and logistics.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Republican governor said vaccinations for the state's oldest residents will start next week through National Guard armories but cautioned that vaccines are in limited supply. Health clinics also will reach out when vaccines become available to them.
Vaccines for teachers and school workers over age 50 will be made available in the next few weeks, Justice said.
The state has received 86,800 doses and administered nearly 38,000, or 44%, of them.
Citing a famous line from Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Wooden, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said the Guard will be "quick, but don't hurry and make mistakes.
"This is a bold effort and it is going to take a lot of work by a lot of people. But we owe it to the people of West Virginia to press forward."
Justice also announced that the winter high school sports season, including boys and girls basketball, will start on March 1.
He said he will leave it up to the state's governing body for high school sports to decide on spring sports "when we get there."
"They'll figure it out. It may be abbreviated," Justice said. "Right now it's as simple as mud: We can't go into the gymnasiums."