Liz McCormick Published

Union Leaders Allege Schools Not Safe To Reopen As State Defends Response

Empty classroom, school, classroom, desks

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango and union leaders in West Virginia education say Gov. Jim Justice and state officials are not doing enough for a safe reopening of schools next week. 

The West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and gubernatorial candidate Salango held a press conference Wednesday in Charleston citing concerns that several schools across the state are not yet safe enough to open next week.

Fred Albert, president of AFT-West Virginia, said over a Facebook Live broadcast that the greatest concern is aging school buildings in West Virginia that do not have proper ventilation, which Albert said is “vital to mitigating the virus.”

“Our teachers and service personnel miss their students,” Albert said. “We want to return to teaching and to learning, but it must be safe. Our elected leaders have only a few days left to put the proper safety measures and resources in place.”

Albert argued that many teachers have reached out to him and AFT-West Virginia claiming they still do not have personal protective equipment available.

In a″>virtual press briefing Wednesday with Justice and other state leaders, the governor said there is money available through the CARES Act for any resources still needed at West Virginia’s more than 600 public schools.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch echoed the governor and said he and his staff are “triple checking” to make sure schools have what they need. He said he communicates frequently with county superintendents.

“The governor’s assured us that at no point in time should I be shy coming to him to ask for any dollars that I need,” Burch said in the press briefing. “I’ve got Gen. Hoyer, Secretary Crouch completely backing us up. We’ve got over 2 million face coverings stockpiled, ready to be used.”

Burch did not directly mention the AFT press conference that occurred Wednesday morning, but he did mention Albert and said he feels frustrated “when we continue to hear folks go on and publicly continue to say that our teachers and our schools aren’t ready, and that happened [Wednesday].”

“My door has been open, since day one, March 13, I’ve never closed my door,” Burch said. “My door has been open to anybody who wants to discuss return to school, and I’ve appreciated all the voices who have assisted. Whether you’re a parent advocacy group, whether you are folks representing special needs, whether you’re folks representing foster children, or whether you’re one of our teachers’ unions, or service personnel, my door has been continuously open.”

Still, Albert argued during the AFT press conference for more leadership from the governor with clear, consistent procedures on “how staff, parents and students will be notified of potential cases or exposure in schools.”

Salango said in the Facebook Live broadcast there should be more coronavirus testing and more nurses staffed at schools. Salango also claimed that with $6 million, every school in the state could be equipped with temperature scanners.

“We don’t have thermal scanners, temperature scanners, hands free devices in all of our schools,” Salango argued. “That’s something that’s easy to do, easily installed, easily executed.”

Albert is also asking Justice to allow more time for families to sort out childcare needs should a county change color on the re-entry map. He said being notified on a Saturday night does not give families enough time to prepare.

“If we stay in the orange or move to red by Saturday night at 9 p.m., then our parents will be scrambling over the weekend to provide care for their child.”

Albert said families should at least be notified by Fridays at 5 p.m.

West Virginia’s school re-entry is guided by metrics developed by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. It’s based on a four-color system – green, yellow, orange and red. Each county is assigned a color based on the prevalence of COVID-19 within their borders, according to the West Virginia Department of Education.

Both the governor and Burch say school re-opening remains a “fluid” situation, and they are prepared to respond to any scenario.

Schools in West Virginia are set to begin Sept. 8.