FILE - School classroom

(The Center Square) – Private schools will be able to reopen sooner than public schools in West Virginia after Gov. Jim Justice struck a deal with private schools, the governor announced Wednesday.

School reopenings and other restrictions are determined by the number of COVID-19 cases per capita and the percent positivity rate in the school’s county. Each county is ranked on a color-coded scale in which restrictions progressively get stricter when cases rise.

Public schools in orange and red must halt all in-person classes. As of Wednesday, however, Justice said private schools in the orange will be allowed to reopen for in-person classes if the school tests every student and staff member. Private schools in the red will not be allowed to have in-person classes. A county is considered in the orange if it has between 15 and 24.9 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, and a county is in the red if it has 25 or more cases per 100,000 people.

“In this situation, it is really, really difficult to say one size fits all,” Justice said during a news conference.

Justice said private schools are in a different situation than public schools because many do not have sports or bussing. He said there are a number of reasons why students in private schools are not at the same risk of exposure as public schools.

Additionally, Justice said he does not want the state to get wrapped up in lawsuits with private schools. He said many of the private schools are Christian schools and they see the school function as one in the same as the church function, and his authority over the schools is limited because they do not take state government funding.

“As a state government, [we] have no control … over these schools,” Justice said. “... They do not take funding from us.”

The governor said the increased testing from these schools also will help the counties and public schools because it will provide more information on the county’s per-capita infection rate. A county enters the gold – between yellow and orange – when it hits a 5% infection rate.

The announcement came shortly after one private school, Bible Center School, began in-person schooling while being in an orange county – in violation of an executive order. The school later halted in-person instruction after beginning talks with the governor and now will be able to reopen if it tests all of its students. 

West Virginia also will bolster testing in the red and orange counties, Justice said. The increased testing initiative will be funded with $50 million from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.