Education, Latest News, State Government

Justice faces some push back on schools

Teachers’ associations are not happy with governor’s decision

Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to get students back in classrooms three weeks from now isn’t making the grade with the state’s two unions for teachers and other school employees.

Justice said Wednesday he’ll reopen all elementary and middle schools for five-day-a-week attendance by Jan. 19, no matter the infection rates in their counties.

The move also includes high schools, which will continue to operate in accordance with the County Alert Map maintained by the state Department of Health of Human Resources — and not the previous one from the Department of Education.

That one is being done away with under the new measure, he said.

The idea, he said, is to eliminate the sense of hopelessness and failure which, the governor decrees, is percolating among the state’s younger students, for whom face-to-face learning is critical.

A sizeable portion of students across all grades are collectively floundering right now, he said, because none of West Virginia’s 55 school districts have fully mastered the mostly remote-learning model in place, given the renewed surge of the pandemic.

“A third of our students are failing in the core classes,” he said. “We need to be back in school.” 

Fair enough, responded Fred Albert and Dale Lee, who lead the state Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and West Virginia Education Association, respectively.

However, both union presidents said the governor needs a new lesson plan.

“We have major concerns,” Lee said of his fellow WVEA members.

Concerns, he said, colored by the hues on the county alert maps that have been mile-markers of safe attendance for the past several months.

“How can you say now that orange and red don’t mean anything?” he asked.

Justice said he was motivated by traditionally low transmission rates across schools in the Mountain State — around .02% among students and .3% for teachers and others.

Lee countered by saying that isn’t necessarily true, saying he’s read recent studies pointing to children trending more as carriers of the coronavirus than originally thought.

“We don’t know all the data,” he said.

His AFT counterpart Albert said he “was disappointed” by Justice’s decision.

Justice’s rush back to school, Albert said, could be dangerous, with the pull of the pandemic.

Especially, he said, since teachers have yet to be vaccinated under the Pfizer and Moderna rollout.

“A lot of our members are 50 years of age and older,” he said. “They’re vulnerable. We have to follow the science.” 

State Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch echoed the governor in the call to return.

“Student social and emotional well-being has suffered, and one-third of our students have received failing grades in at least one core subject area,” he said.

“We simply have to get our students back in school, in-person.” 

In the meantime, Mon Schools Superintendent Eddie Campbell Jr. said he’ll hunker down with principals and other officials after New Year’s for the re-entry.

While his district was roiled with cases and quarantines last month, he agrees with the governor’s numbers, he said.

“We’re not seeing the spread in our schools,” Campbell said.

In Preston County, Justice’s call couldn’t have come soon enough for Steve Wotring.

“We’re ready to roll,” the superintendent said.

One thing that won’t be returning right away, though, are winter sports: Justice suspended them through March 1.

TWEET @DominionPostWV