Teachers line the streets on first day of strike

MORGANTOWN — The sounds of car and truck horns chorused throughout Mon and Preston counties Thursday, but not because of traffic gridlock.

Teachers were out in force on the first day of the statewide teacher strike, many standing in the rain to get their point across.

As groups of teachers gathered and picketed in various locations, people driving by honked their horns in support of the issues that the state’s teachers are concerned about, including increased pay and  full funding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).

“We’re out here trying to gather support from the public,” said Jason Kruger, a teacher at Morgantown High School. “The whole situation with PEIA is really the big reason why we’re out here. Hopefully with this happening around the whole state in all 55 counties that the people in Charleston making decisions will make the right decisions for the people that work for them in this state.”

Teachers also picketed in Preston County. Melissa Kent, the school improvement specialist for Bruceton School, wanted to reiterate that the work stoppage was not an easy decision and that the children are still at the forefront of her mind. She’s been teaching for 31 years.

“For the naysayers that say we’re not thinking about the children here, we are. We’ve provided extra food for the weekend for our backpack kids,” she said. “This isn’t an easy thing. It’s gut-wrenching. We’ve, you know, lost sleep, but ultimately, this is for these kids. When you have certified teachers in the classroom, you have healthy teachers in the classrooms, you have money that the charter schools and school vouchers would take, it’s about the kids.”

She stood with several other teachers along W.Va. 26 in the rain Thursday, cheering when cars honked in support.

“Teaching is an art. It’s not just putting a body in there and expecting somebody to do it,” Kent said. “You may know the curriculum, but that’s only one small portion of the classroom environment.”

In Charleston, chanting, sign-waving teachers filled the Capitol building’s main floor from the Senate chamber to the House.

Long lines, consisting of hundreds of teachers, waited outside the Capitol.

“West Virginia teachers and state workers deserve more,” said Amber Shrewsberry, a fourth-grade teacher at Cheat Lake Elementary. “We deserve competitive pay, and the PEIA insurance that we have right now is not where it should be, and it needs to be better. We’re just taking a stand.”

On Wednesday night, Gov. Jim Justice signed the pay raise bill into law.

The legislation gives teachers, school service employees and state police a 2 percent pay raise starting in July. The bill also grants a 2 percent pay raise to all other state employees.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it could be better,” Shrewsberry said.

As a result of the bill, teachers are scheduled to receive an additional 1 percent increase during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, with school service employees and state police also getting an additional 1 percent increase during the 2020 fiscal year.

However, many teachers don’t feel that the pay raise is enough and still feel that state government hasn’t addressed their main concerns and issues, including fully funding PEIA.

“As far as salary goes, I don’t think that’s the biggest issue,” Kruger said. “I think a lot of people would be really happy with fixing PEIA and having it fully funded. As far as the raise goes, if things can’t be fully funded, then it needs to be more than what was passed.”

Schools will remain closed today in Monongalia and Preston counties because of the walk out.

Haley Moore also contributed to this story.