HARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Friday questioned a bill moving through the Republican-led Legislature that would prohibit mask mandates in public schools in response to the coronavirus, saying that he will wait on the proposal's final outcome before deciding how to act.
Justice has left the decision on masks in schools throughout the pandemic to officials in individual counties, and nearly all of the state's counties have required them at some point.
"I go back to if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Justice said during a COVID-19 briefing. "Or don't try to fix it."
Around two-thirds of West Virginia county school districts require masks in schools now — 35 out of 55, according to the state Department of Education. Most others have policies that trigger a mask requirement if cases in the state or school community reach a certain threshold. Hardy County requires masks for unvaccinated students.
House Bill 4071 would prohibit school and elected officials from implementing mask mandates in schools or during extracurricular activities even in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, which it defines as 10% or three or more positive cases within a core group of students or teachers. A core group could be one classroom or a sports team, according to the bill.
The bill also would restrict districts from requiring COVID-19 testing for people who don't have symptoms and prevent students or school employees from being made to quarantine or isolate unless they test positive for COVID-19. Those who do test positive can return to school after five days or a negative test.
"Our local school boards have done well, have they not? They've made a lot of good decisions," Justice said. "I don't think we had an adverse decision that I can recall where everybody got up in arms about it and everything. We made the decision to have local control and I think those folks did a heck of a good job."
The bill is before the House Judiciary Committee after it passed the House Education Committee on Wednesday in a packed meeting room where most lawmakers were not wearing masks.
"We'll watch this and we'll make a decision on it when it finally comes out," said Justice, a Republican.
Raleigh County Del. Jordan Maynor said he authored the bill after hearing concerns from parents and teachers that the COVID-19 mandates were impacting students' educational and social development.
But West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said lawmakers should be looking out for the safety of grandparents who are raising kids and are at risk for contracting severe cases of COVID-19. West Virginia leads the nation in the number of grandparents who are raising children.
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