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Education leaders unhappy with governor ’s back-to-school plan

The leaders of two state education unions gave Gov. Jim Justice failing marks in pandemic performance Thursday afternoon.

Fred Albert and Joe White said the governor isn’t doing enough to safely provide for the students, teachers and service personnel he wants to see back in school next month — even as COVID-19 continues to roil across West Virginia.

Albert is president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. 

White steers the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, as its executive director.

The gathering was in response to Justice’s press briefing from the day before, during which a “significant announcement” on schools was promised, but not necessarily delivered, the duo said.

Justice did announce the implementation of a $6 million, “Kids Connect” program that will offer Wi-Fi access, plus laptops and tablets to students in tech-poor counties, and Albert said he appreciated the overture, which has already been part of AFT’s song.

“We’ve been begging for that for years,” he said.

The color-coded plan Justice also discussed — to be based on a yet-created metric that will determine which schools do in-person learning and which go remote for the day — also should have long been ready to go, they said.

“At this point, we do not believe any counties will be prepared to safely begin full-time, in person school on Sept. 8,” Albert said.

“I don’t think anyone should have a 5-day option every day,” said White, whose union takes in bus drivers, custodians and maintenance workers.

“And I don’t think anyone should have more than 50% capacity in school. It is not the option right now.”

With many counties planning for just that — a five-day school week —  classroom management, Albert said, is going to be even more of a challenge, with mandates on face masks and social distancing.

“How are we going to socially distance 20 students in a classroom that has poor ventilation to begin with and not very much space?” the former middle school teacher asked.

Albert also referenced a recent survey circulated among teachers here who are members of AFT’s Monongalia County chapter.

Mon County Schools is fronting a 40-page re-entry plan that calls for in-school instruction, five days a week.

That will only come, though, after a staggered, alternating schedule for that first week back, which will include classroom learning for one group of grades one day, and distance-learning from home, the next.

Even so, 86% of Mon teachers responding to that survey said they were worried about returning to their classrooms this fall.

Albert echoed his union’s national measures on COVID-19, which include intensive trace-testing and maintaining physical distancing until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days.

So did Sam Brunett, the longtime Morgantown High teacher and president of Mon’s AFT chapter.

Brunett favors a blended-learning model, even if Mon County Schools doesn’t plan on using one.

As a teacher, being able to conduct instruction from home two or three days a week “would at least alleviate some of the anxiety,” he said.

Thursday’s conference also featured an appearance and brief remarks by Ben Salango, who is challenging Justice for governor in November.

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