AFT president urges WV to issue statewide mask, vaccine mandates in schools

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The president of the American Federation of Teachers is urging Governor Jim Justice to implement statewide masking and vaccination mandates in West Virginia schools.

AFT President Randi Weingarten

“I think he should issue a mask mandate for indoors, but I don’t think it should last forever,” Randi Weingarten told MetroNews during a Thursday stop in Charleston.

Justice has continued to leave COVID-19 safety decisions up to local school districts. Some county school systems have issued mask mandates as cases statewide surge with the ongoing threat of the Delta variant.

Last week, students and staff at Capital High School in Kanawha County transitioned to virtual learning after more than two dozen positive cases were reported at the school.

Weingarten, who represents 1.7 million educators at the national level, said it’s not new to require vaccines at schools.

“Vaccines have been with us forever. Just like a whole of society response was having social security or Medicare, this is about making sure we can protect everyone,” she said.

Currently, kids under the age of 12 cannot get vaccinated, so Weingarten said older kids and adults should try to do their part.

“One of the reasons that so many of us have embraced our employers’ vaccine mandates and requirements is because we feel a responsibility to our communities, particularly to our kids under 12 who can’t get vaccines,” she said.

Parents and students packed the Putnam BOE meeting room last week. Credit: WCHS-TV

Parents across the state have staged protests against mask mandates saying those decisions should be left up to each family because each child is different.

There was a heated discussion at the Putnam County Board of Education meeting last week where a majority of parents opposed masks in schools before board members voted to keep it a recommendation. One Hurricane Middle School student cited health concerns and difficulty breathing while wearing a face covering.

During Friday’s coronavirus media briefing at the state Capitol, Justice reiterated his stance on COVID mandates even after West Virginia health officials announced another spike in active cases which rose above the 13,000 mark.

Governor Jim Justice

“I am not an advocate of mandates. I am not an advocate of masks. We’ve been through enough,” the governor said.

Weingarten referred to the current state of the COVID crisis as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

She said if the nation continues this upward trend, there is concern that schools will have no choice but to return to online classes.

“What you’re seeing across the country is that no one wants to return to virtual learning. The benefits of being in school are obvious,” Weingarten said.

AFT has spent $5 million in grants to help schools across the country return to in person learning this year. Part of the effort is to offer vaccine clinics and to answer parent questions by going door-to-door.

“We need make sure communities are protected and safe,” Weingarten said. “That’s how you make sure you have a running economy and how you make sure you have schools that are working.”

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