Teachers union urges West Virginia districts to start school year with distance learning

Based on a survey of its members, the West Virginia Education Association is asking districts to start this year with distance learning until it’s more certain schools can adhere to precautions meant to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

“Based upon that, the WVEA and its members are urging school districts to err on the side of caution and begin the school year with distance learning,” teachers union president Dale Lee said today during a virtual press conference that also streamed on social media.

Lee left open what would happen if districts don’t comply with the request.

“We will deal with those answers and work with our locals’ members in each of those districts to determine what action they want to take,” Lee said.

Asked for a timeline that he’d recommend distance learning, Lee cited at least the first grading period.

“I think it is fluid, and we’re going to have to continue to revisit it periodically,” Lee said.

WVEA based its position on a survey of members conducted between July 21 and July 30. Lee said it had only a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Among the key findings, Lee said:

“Although nearly all members report concern about learning loss, most want a delayed reopening.”

“Most feel uncomfortable returning to school under their counties’ plans.”

“The situation with the virus continues to be fluid, and no one can predict what will happen a few days from now let alone a few weeks or months from now,” Lee said. “That uncertainty is part of the problem. People need to make plans, and it’s difficult to do that with such a fluid situation.”

Governor Justice

Gov. Jim Justice has said he would like for schools to reopen by Sept. 8 and, although he favors in-class learning, he has described the need to be careful about the health of students, teachers and staff.

During his most recent briefing, the governor said key decisions will be made at the local level.

“Local control should rule, and that is what we’re going to do,” Justice said. “Local input is going to rule the day.”

School systems around the state have been producing plans for students to return at a target date Sept. 8. Most are offering options to families, who must choose.

State Superintendent Clayton Burch

During a Wednesday state school board meeting, Superintendent Clayton Burch cautioned against starting the year with classrooms closed.

“We continue to hear ‘Why don’t we just start the year with remote learning?’” Burch said. He concluded, “This idea of closing schools and resorting to remote learning is a big, big mistake.”

Because different communities have different resources, including access to high-speed internet, starting the school year from home would result in disparities.

“We just don’t have the means for every child to participate virtually right now,” Burch said.

WVEA’s position was aimed toward local school districts, and Lee said it had not yet been conveyed to Justice, Burch and other state officials.

“I would think they are going to hear about this rather quickly from you guys in the media and we will reach out to them and make the request formally,” he said.

Lee and the union contended that starting the school year off-site would provide more time to learn more about the spread of covid-19.

“Distance learning will give time for counties to get a handle on the situation and to further iron out the details of how school entry will be handled in each situation,” Lee said.

He added, “Starting before we are truly prepared will simply force shutdowns and create additional anxiety and uncertainty.”

When asked what guidelines should be more specific, Lee referred to greater specifics on students and teachers wearing masks, on social distancing in classrooms and better clarity on how buses would run.

“We want to see about the social distancing, we want to see the transportation measures they have in place and how you have the distancing there,” Lee said.

“They may have few cases now but if we’re not following all the CDC guidelines with social distancing, the handwashing, the things the health experts say you have to have in place to stop the spread, it could very easily be another outbreak.”

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