Justice considers public school mask mandate in West Virginia

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West Virginia public school students could be subject to a mask mandate if the COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread throughout the state, Gov. Jim Justice said in a news conference Wednesday.

At this stage, the state’s Department of Education has provided school districts with guidelines, but has not imposed any mandates. The state encouraged the schools to manage class and event sizes and promote social distancing. It had a neutral tone on masks, urging school districts to work with local health officials to determine what is best for that locality.

With the spread of COVID-19 in the state, Justice may change that policy.

“I’m trying to give a lot of leeway to our local officials, but if this thing continues the way it’s going, you’ll just have to look for the fact that we will have to adjust and we will probably end up having to move in [the direction of a mask mandate],” Justice said.

To date, not all school districts are taking the same approach. Monongalia County is mandating masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff and Putnam County announced it would not require masks for vaccinated or unvaccinated students. Kanawha County decided it will require students from preschool through fifth grade to wear masks, but make it optional for older students.

Some colleges are requiring their students to wear masks and West Virginia Wesleyan College is forcing unvaccinated students to pay a $750 “COVID fee,” which will help cover costs related to the pandemic, such as weekly testing for those who do not have a vaccine.

Justice said the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the delta variant, is for all West Virginians to get vaccinated against the virus. He said numbers have been moving up, but that they are not where they need to be.

“We do not have people running to the fire like they should right now,” Justice said.

The Department of Health and Human Resource’s most recent numbers show that more than 69% of the eligible population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and 57% are fully vaccinated. However, young people are less likely to get vaccinated than older people. More than 83% of those aged 50 or older have gotten their first doses and more than 71% are fully vaccinated. Nearly 90% of those aged 65 or older have gotten their first doses and more than 79% are fully vaccinated.

Justice urged older people to encourage younger people to get the vaccine. COVID-19 rarely leads to death or serious illness in young people, but risks increase for older people and those with health problems.

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