Strike is possible, West Virginia union leader says, but preference is safe schools

As the delayed start of the school year draws nearer, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia says a strike is a last-resort and undesired option.

“The ‘S word’ is being thrown out there,” Fred Albert said. “But the ‘S word’ that we’re using is, we want to go back to school safely.

“We want to make sure our students, educators the service personnel and the families our precious children go home to are going to go home safe.”

West Virginia schools are targeting a Sept. 8 opening date, which is delayed from usual. State and county officials have been working on plans for social distancing and cleaning to try to assure safety.

Nationally, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten this week said “safety strikes” are a possibility if school reopening plans don’t meet standards to suppress the spread of covid-19.

She said, “if the authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”

Fred Albert

Albert, speaking on “Talkline,” said teachers want to return to classrooms under safe conditions. But he said much depends on conditions in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties.

Albert worried about how that might unfold in higher-population counties like Kanawha and Monongalia, where officials have described heightened levels of coronavirus spread in recent weeks.

“In some counties like Monongalia County, I’m not really confident that can happen,” Albert said, adding that a survey among teachers union members in Monongalia County showed 86 percent don’t believe it is safe to return there yet.

But Albert said union members in McDowell County, where there have been just 19 confirmed covid cases, have said they feel comfortable returning to classrooms.

“It’s going to have to be looked at county-by-county,” Albert said. “And we can’t do the same thing maybe in Kanawha County that they can do in McDowell County.”

Sam Brunett

Teachers in Monongalia County don’t yet feel safe, agreed Sam Brunett, the president of the AFT local there.

“We want to go back when it’s safe,” Brunett said today on “Talk of the Town” on WAJR Radio.

“And right now the overwhelming majority of those who took the survey don’t feel safe entering the classroom under the plan that we’re being provided.

He said students need to be spread out to assure safety in schools.

“We need to reduce the amount of population in our buildings in order to try to maintain an amount of safety,”

But he said traditional school buildings have made that difficult to achieve.

“We’ve gone from a six-foot distance with a mask to a three-foot distance to a mask and now we’ve been told in some cases we’re sorry we can’t even afford three feet because of the footprint of the building so a mask will have to suffice,” Brunett said.

Listen to “Dave & Sarah | July 30, 2020” on Spreaker.

Gov. Jim Justice, during a regular briefing Wednesday, indicated the start of school needs to remain flexible, particularly as situations differ among counties.

“Our local counties will surely know the best for what’s going on in that county,” Justice said. “Local control is always better.”

The governor continued, “As we get closer, we’re going to have to pivot and adjust.”

The governor’s challenger in the upcoming election, Democrat Ben Salango, said he is concerned about the possibility of community spread related to gatherings in school.

“If we have 50 to 100 kids on the school bus in the morning, in the afternoon, we’re going to have outbreaks,” he said. “If we have hundreds of kids in the hallways when the bell rings in between classes, we’re going to have outbreaks.”

Salango, currently a Kanawha County Commissioner, is pushing for hands-free temperature scanners in every school along with nurses in every school, as well as ventilation repairs and wifi access — a plan that he says totals about $100 million.

“The governor’s not doing that. There is no statewide plan in place,” Salango said on “Panhandle Live” today on WEPM Radio.

Counties around West Virginia have been working on back-to-school plans.

The state Department of Education has provided a framework for reopening on a delayed date of Sept. 8, but has largely left the details to local school systems.

County plans are due to the state by August 14.

Jefferson County, in the Eastern Panhandle, is offering virtual learning for any family but also five days a week of in-person learning at all grade levels. The county is trying to determine how much interest families have in either option.

That combination — virtual and in-person learning — will be a challenging balance, acknowledged Hans Fogle, spokesman for Jefferson County Schools.

“That’s certainly one of the biggest concerns for teachers around the state — how do I juggle an in-person class as well as a remote class,” Fogle said today on “Panhandle Live.”

“To effectively instruct students virtually and instruct students in the classroom, you’ve got to focus one way or another.”

He acknowledged the health concerns of educators.

“There is concern all around from everybody right now as we work to contain the coronavirus,” Fogle said, adding that the system is preparing for personal protective equipment, heightened cleaning and social distancing measures.

“I think teachers, like everybody else, have concerns about their families and their own safety.”

Raleigh County is moving toward starting school with a hybrid plan, with some students in classrooms Monday and Wednesday and others in classrooms on Tuesday and Thursday. Three days a week would be distance learning.

“I know it doesn’t make everyone happy, and we knew going into this there was no way we were going to make everybody happy,” Raleigh County Superintendent David Price said on “Radio Roundtable” on WJLS Radio.

The county wants to move toward being in classrooms five days a week, Price said. Other families may opt for full-time virtual school.

“We want kids back in school five days a week. We want kids back in school regular. We want everything back to normal,” Price said.





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