WSAZ - The West Virginia Department of Education has released new guidelines limiting when a school should enter into a widespread contact tracing quarantine.

School leaders said these revised rules, which were created in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), will help keep children in the classroom for in-person learning instead of closing entire buildings due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

The state has not issued a mandate forcing schools to universally require masks, instead, continuing to allow local control by school boards and local health officials.

The updated rules no longer require a school to quarantine students or staff if an universal mask policy is in place. Contact tracing would only be needed if someone was exposed in the cafeteria or during another extracurricular activity where people are not wearing masks. The state recommends schools limit potential exposure by having students eat in a group of friends or in their classroom.

Schools that do not have a universal mask policy will still have to quarantine students and staff who are not fully vaccinated. However, schools should now only quarantine people who were within 6 feet of an infected person in a classroom, on a bus or in the cafeteria -- instead of placing an entire classroom in quarantine under the current rules.

The definitions of a school outbreak has also been changed to keep buildings open if there is a manageable number of cases. A school outbreak will only be declared if more than three cases, or 10%, of students or staff in a specific group test positive for COVID-19. Schools can now only be closed if so many teachers are out sick that it becomes unsafe to hold in-person instruction or double the normal amount of students are absent.

“We are hoping this will keep more of our schools open, keep getting more of our students in a consistent routine and used to going back to school, while still protecting them because they still have the mask and many of them have the option to be vaccinated,” West Virginia Deputy Superintendent Michele Blatt said.

Blatt said the number of counties with mask mandates has increased from 16 at the beginning of the school year to 29 as on Wednesday morning. Thirteen other counties require masks based on the color of the county on the DHHR COVID-19 infection map.

During Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, Board President Miller Hall asked Blatt to contact the 13 school systems that require masks sometimes, as well as the other school that do not require masks. Blatt said the goal is to figure out what their case numbers look like, their reasons for not requiring masks and see what need to be done for everyone to move forward wearing masks.

“We are going to look at that, and the decision will be made on that data,” Hall said after shutting down discussion of issuing a statewide mask mandate on Wednesday. He said an emergency meeting could be called in the near future to issue more rules if the latest guidelines do not reduce school outbreaks and closures.

“We will do what we have got to do, but at the same time you have to be careful with what you are doing, too,” Hall continued. “I hate to use the phrase step on toes. Sometimes you just have to follow the lead instead of taking the lead. So get that ASAP. It won’t be in a month, it won’t be in two weeks, get it ASAP.”

On the local level, Blatt said county school boards, county commissions and health departments can issue mask mandates in schools. The West Virginia Board of Education has the authority to issue a mask mandate that would supersede any local decisions, Blatt said. Only the Legislature can require vaccinations for students to attend public school.

“I just think we are trying to find the safest way to keep as many students in school as possible,” Blatt said. “We learned so much last year during the pandemic of the importance of school not just academically, but on their social and emotional health, on their wellness, and anything we can do to mitigate some of these issues that are arising in the school. If it’s as simple as putting on a mask or having more people vaccinated, then we think that is something easy to do in order for the betterment of our students being able to receive their education in person.”

The Board on Wednesday also approved two programs that look to help fill teacher and substitute vacancies across the state. Multiple schools have already closed this year because they do not have the staff required to safely operate the building.

The programs will make it easier for someone with a Bachelor’s degree to earn their teaching certificate, Office of Educator Development and Support Executive Director Dr. Carla Warren said. The Department of Education will begin offering free online classes and practice tests for people to use before attempting to earn their teaching certificate and specific subject area tests.

West Virginia colleges will also be given tools to help students get certified through these programs after graduation. Another new policy will allow outside private companies to get people certified to teach in the state and help them find a job.

Warren said the program will target people who are already working as long-term substitutes but who did not complete their clinical experiences. While it is faster than going to get another four-year degree, she said it will take between one and six months to actually get these people teaching in classrooms.

“I think at this point and time we have to start recruiting from our high schools,” Warren said. “We have to elevate the profession of teaching and bring it back to the position it belongs in our society. That an educator is a valuable individual who has a tremendous impact on children. We want to create innovative, creative, out of the box ways to bring more teachers into the profession.”