Gov. Jim Justice expressed continued concern about West Virginia’s coronavirus numbers, but said he believes the state is on track to open school by a Sept. 8 target date.
“I am all in on wanting to hit that date and be back in school,” Justice said during a briefing today. “I truly believe with all in me, we’re going to be back in school by Sept. 8, and we’re going to be back playing football. I believe it wholeheartedly.”
The governor, generally, said he wants that to occur as safely as possible.
“I am absolutely not willing to put those children back in school or our teachers and service personnel back in those environments unless I can feel absolutely certain from the education experts, from our medical community that everyone is on board saying ‘Absolutely, this is safe and it’s the hing to do,'” Justice said.
But his opponent in the General Election for governor said today that West Virginia needs to invest more in preparation.
“Jim Justice has put out vague guidelines about how schools are going to reopen. We need certainty,” Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango said earlier today during an appearance with leaders of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
“We need money that has been set aside from Congress, appropriated from Congress, into our public schools to make sure our children, our teachers and our school service personnel are safe.”
Salango, a Democrat, called for $6 million of federal relief money to be spent on touch-free scanners to ensure students aren’t attending school with fevers.
And he called for a $30 million investment in health care professionals to be staffed in the schools across the state.
Salango alluded to the $100 million Justice had originally prioritized for highways work out of federal covid relief funds. Justice recently cut that suggested amount in half to dedicate money to broadband internet expansion.
“For about one third of what the governor wants to use to patch potholes, we can make our schools safe,” Salango said.
He also called for more investment in personal protective equipment for schools and improvements to ventilation systems in school buildings.
“The question is, are we going to have a governor that’s going to make education an actual priority or just make it a political talking point?” Salango said.
“We need to step up and use that money to make our schools safe.”
Justice was asked during today’s briefing about steps and investments meant to ensure schools are safe this fall.
He said the state schools system has access to $94 million to be able to use for covid-related issues, beyond the $1.2 billion that has been allocated to the state.
“When they spend $94 million if we need more money for our kids, we’ll give ’em the money,” Justice said.
In an apparent reference to Salanto’s remarks, Justice said “I hate like crazy that we drift into politics. And I hate that we drift into ignorance, to tell you the truth.”
The governor continued, “At the end of the day, it’s a political football. It’s the political season. You’re going to get a bunch of this.”
Those comments drew yet another reaction from Salango.
Today, @AFTWV & I called upon Governor Justice to spend federal CARES Act money to protect students & teachers.
Justice responded by calling us "ignorant."
Dear Governor, our students aren't "thugs" & our teachers aren't "ignorant." #wvgov
— Ben Salango (@BenSalango) July 20, 2020
The state Department of Education has been setting guidelines for the return to school, with a stated goal of being in classrooms five days a week. But the state department has left many of the details to local school systems.
“There’s nothing that teachers and school service personnel want more than to be back in school. We want to go back to school. We’re hoping that Sept. 8 is a date we can be back in school,” said Fred Albert, president of AFT-WV, which endorsed Salango in the upcoming General Election.
But Albert said he would not consider current conditions safe for a return.
“If we were to start school today, it’s not safe. I don’t know what Sept. 8 is going to look like,” he said during an appearance with Salango today.
“Safe would be ‘we’ve got the numbers under control and we have safety measures in place.”
Albert described school ventilation systems as an example of improvements that would be necessary if droplets for the virus may be transmitted through the air.
“We do not have proper ventilation on a good day,” Albert said. “We certainly don’t have proper ventilation during a pandemic such as this.”
Salango said improving school ventilation systems should be an immediate priority.
“Why not do that now?” he asked. “Certainly that’s better than patching potholes.”