CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Education leaders in two West Virginia counties rejected an offer Monday by Gov. Jim Justice to resume fall sports competitions if athletic teams test negative for the coronavirus.
Justice had suggested the compromise to Fayette, Logan and Kanawha counties, whose schools were allowed to hold team practices but cannot play games due to their status on a color-coded county map.
Under the governor's one-time plan, if a team’s athletes and coaches all test negative, then they would be cleared to compete. It also applied to high school bands and cheerleading squads in the three counties.
Justice made the announcement shortly after he arrived at the state Capitol as a group of parents and students protested outside, repeatedly shouting “Let Us Play!”
Justice, who is a longtime high school girls basketball coach, said he understands the desire and the commitment of teams to get back onto the field.
However, “as your governor, I have to protect the public health across this state,” he said. “Irregardless to the pressure, I am not going to compromise in any way the well being of our children, the well being of our counties, the well being of our cities.”
But school officials in Fayette and Kanawha counties turned down the plan, news outlets reported. A statement from Kanawha County schools said this week's games would be rescheduled for later in the season.
It marked yet another turn in the state's pandemic response since the color-coded map was introduced in recent weeks. The map is used to gauge counties’ readiness to support in-person attendance and extracurricular activities at schools, which open statewide Sept. 8. It also applies to the opening status of county nursing homes.
About half of the 55 counties are color-coded green, meaning they are among the lowest rates of confirmed community-spread virus cases. The other categories, in order of increasing severity, are yellow, orange and red.
The map is updated daily. A county's athletic competition status for the following week is confirmed as of Saturday night. The high school football season opens this week statewide.
To complicate matters, state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said competitions won’t be allowed in counties that have online learning only, such as Logan County. Burch said Logan County administrators have indicated they would consider in-person classes if their county map turns green or yellow.
Burch said in-person classes are important because a large number of West Virginia families don't have internet access at home, and parents don’t have the resources to be at home with their children when they have to work.
“Young children especially suffer when learning remotely because they don't have the cognitive ability to learn on their own,” Burch said. "They need an adult with them.”
Monroe County is the only county on the map in red, meaning its schools and nursing homes must remain closed.
Also Monday, Justice allowed an order to expire that had closed bars in Monongalia County for weeks. The expiration came despite a recent uptick in cases at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Since Thursday, 11% of the 443 students tested have shown positive for the virus, compared to a rate of under 1% for about 21,000 students since the mandatory testing started in late July.
West Virginia saw an 84% increase in virus-related deaths in August — mostly among senior citizens — and a 52% increase in positive cases. The state has ramped up the availability of free lab tests this summer, and the number of residents taking them increased by 49% in August.
The virus usually results in only mild to moderate symptoms, but is particularly dangerous for the elderly and people with other health problems. West Virginia has the nation's third-oldest population.
Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.