Liz McCormick Published

Group Demands W.Va. Governor, Education Leaders Start School Virtually This Fall

Members of the Our Students First Coalition gather on Aug. 12, 2020 outside the West Virginia Education building on the Capitol grounds in Charleston, W.Va.

A coalition of teachers and public school advocates are asking for West Virginia schools to start remotely for the first 14 days with in-person instruction beginning only after 14 consecutive days of no new coronavirus cases in the state.

The Our Students First Coalition also wants state officials to allow students to return to in-person learning – on a county-by-county basis – if cases drop to zero in certain areas.

The group held a demonstration and press conference outside the West Virginia Education building in Charleston Wednesday to advocate for remote learning at the start of the 2020 school year.

“We hear over and over, [students] are safest in the school, but I disagree,” said Jenny Anderson, co-head of the Our Students First Coalition, as their protest was broadcast over Facebook Live. “They’re not safest in the school now. They could be. But not now.”

About a dozen members of the group stood together on the Capitol lawn, six feet apart, wearing masks and holding poster boards that represented desks in a classroom – giving a visual example of what classrooms might look like if the school year begins in person, as planned.

“There are going to be teachers that get sick and other school staff,” Anderson said. “It’s not fair to put the burden on the people that are not making the decisions.”

The coalition has more than 5,000 followers made up of members from the WV United Caucus, the Families Leading Change West Virginia group and others, according to Anderson. The group is also partnered with several groups, including local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Jay O’Neal also leads the coalition alongside Anderson. He is an educator in Kanawha County and pointed to safety concerns including ventilation. He said many schools in West Virginia are too old and not ready to accommodate in-person schooling without first updating ventilation systems.

“I teach at Westside Middle School. I teach in a building that’s 80 years old, [and] a lot of the windows don’t open,” O’Neal said. “The air conditioning just recycles air from the classroom. It doesn’t pull in any outside air … so we’re concerned.”

Other speakers chimed in, pleading for the state’s leaders to take more time to not only better equip classrooms and school buildings but also perfect remote learning in a state where broadband is not always reliable.

O’Neal said the coalition submitted more than 1,700 letters about these issues to Gov. Jim Justice and state education leaders who so far advocate for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning this fall.

The governor and state leaders, however, have said that should school need to go totally virtual this fall, they are prepared to accept that scenario.

“We absolutely will do everything in our power to not put our kids and our teachers or our service personnel into any situation that we feel is unsafe,” said Justice on Monday. “We may very well back up and say we can’t go to school now, [and] we’ve got to go 100 percent virtual … I’m telling you, this situation changes, not weekly or monthly; this situation changes almost hourly.”

Other demands by the Our Students First Coalition include training for parents and educators in virtual schooling, waiving the 180-instructional-days requirement for the 2020/2021 school year, and providing regular, free and widespread coronavirus testing for staff and students.

West Virginia’s public schools are slated to begin in-person instruction, with virtual options, as ordered by the governor, on Sept. 8.