CHARLESTON, W.Va. — American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says it appears West Virginia leaders are turning their backs on teachers by not issuing a statewide mask mandate.
“They have retaliated against the teachers who have gone out of their way to do everything in their power to help kids learn. They take money out of their pockets and make sure kids have what they need. That’s who West Virginia teachers are,” Weingarten told MetroNews last week.
Educators in the Mountain State have gone through massive teacher strikes regarding pay and benefits over the last several years, as well as a global pandemic that shuttered schools in 2020.
Weingarten said it’s time for Gov. Jim Justice to protect teachers and students against the virus to prevent further disruption.
“I begged the governor, and he’s a good guy. I know that these are political issues that shouldn’t be. Safety never used to be political, but have a universal mask mandate,” she said.
Weingarten is encouraging the 1.7 million educators she represents across the country as well as eligible students over the age of 12 to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The more we do the front end, the less of this disruption and going back to remote we believe will happen on the back end. That’s what’s so important,” she said.
Carrying that message to schools nationwide and in West Virginia, Weingarten said AFT is using $5 million to launch a Back-to-School tour to engage with parents, students and school staff.
Part of the tour included a stop at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston last month to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the First Book distribution. It’s a program that originated in the Capital City to provide students with free reading materials nationwide.
Over the last few weeks, schools in Kanawha, Monroe, Barbour, Jefferson and Logan counties had to temporarily transition to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks. In Barbour County, 85 students and nearly 30 staff tested positive for the virus just weeks after the school year started.
Many parents have opposed mask mandates citing health concerns and individual freedoms. A school board meeting in Putnam County last month got heated with a majority of parents outraged at mask requirements, which lead the board to vote to leave masking optional.
Weingarten said returning to virtual learning, even for a brief time, impacts a student’s mental health and academics. She said in-person learning makes a difference, but the only way to do right now is by masking up and getting vaccinated.
“Teachers want what kids need and that’s being back in school by doing it safely,” she said.