CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Hundreds of classrooms across West Virginia are empty as teachers and school service personnel protest their low wages, high health insurance costs and other education issues.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined dozens of school employees along Route 60 outside Riverside High School in Kanawha County Thursday morning for the first day of a statewide strike.

“You are fighting not only for yourselves, not only for your families, not only for the kids of West Virginia, not only for the teaching profession, but you are fighting for everyone who believes in the proposition that public education is foundational to this country and foundational to this future,” Weingarten said as she spoke through a megaphone.

The scene was electric as teachers stood in solidarity holding signs, chanting and demanding change from the state Legislature.

Governor Jim Justice signed SB 267, the teacher pay raise bill, late Wednesday night that gives gives teachers a 2 percent pay raise in July, followed by two years of 1 percent raises.

Lisa Otey, teacher at Belle Elementary, said it’s not enough.

“We’re not really pleased with that plan. We feel like they can find a way to give us a little more,” she said.

Otey said she never thinks about leaving the state to make more money because West Virginia is “home.”

“This is where my family is. My school people are my family. I love where I work. I love what I do and I just want to be here, but they need to make it possible for me to be here,” she said.

The last time there was a statewide teacher strike was in 1990.

Gina Miller, a librarian at Malden Elementary and Midland Trail Elementary, said she was there for the 11-day walk-out. This year’s strike is for Thursday and Friday, but Miller said she’s willing to walk-out past the two days.

“I was right at Spring Hill Elementary,” she said. “We were officially on strike, so if it comes to that on Monday, I’m willing to do it,” she said.

With rising costs to teachers’ health benefits through the Public Employees Health Insurance Agency, Miller said she has already applied for a second job to make ends meet.

Otey was getting into the profession as a student teacher in 1990. She said this is just history repeating itself.

“I was very concerned because I was told if the strike would last much longer I wasn’t going to be able to complete it, so yes, I was around, but I was doing my student teaching,” Otey told MetroNews.

For the kids that want to become teachers in today’s world, Riverside High School teacher Jessica Workman said she wants to be nothing but an “inspiration.” She teaches 12th grade.

“I have students in the 12th grade that want to become teachers and I try not to discourage them to become educators and to stay in West Virginia,” she said.

Weingarten told reporters she knows kids don’t want this.

“They want their teachers to be, frankly, grading papers at night, not having a second job. This is a situation that is ridiculous in this country,” she said.

AFT has played a large role in supporting the “Reconnecting McDowell” effort in McDowell County. Community partners have been working to address the county’s high poverty, under-performing schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services and inadequate access to technology and transportation in connection with the downturn in coal.

Weingarten, along with AFT-WV President Christine Campbell who was also at Thursday’s protest, have been on the front lines of that effort.

“I am no stranger to this state,” Weingarten said. “We run the project in McDowell where we have seen double digit increases in graduation rates, which has seen double the amount of kids go to college. It takes investment and it starts with investing in your teachers, not decreasing their salaries.”

Hannah Silverman was one of several teachers at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Kanawha County early Thursday morning. She said the decision to walkout was not an easy one.

“It is a huge step, but we really have been trying to make this happen without doing this for months,” she said. “Sometimes you have to rock the boat a little bit or make people feel a little bit uncomfortable.”

Teachers across the state staged walk-ins weeks before Thursday’s strike. They showed up at the Capitol last week in large numbers. On Thursday, thousands more showed up to get lawmakers’ attention.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, in a statement, said Wednesday there is no mistaking the strike is illegal and court rulings give the state and counties the option of seeking a court injunction to end an unlawful strike.

Lauren Groseclose, said there’s a lot of unanswered questions right now, but she’s prepared for anything.

“I think we’re unified,” she said. “I think we are trusting our unions to make the best decision for us, so if they decide we’re going to go one way with this, we’ll follow them.”

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