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Unions Weigh In On Gov. Justice’s School Reopening Announcement

CHARLESTON — A union representing part of West Virginia’s teachers criticized Gov. Jim Justice for building hype for an announcement on school reopenings, only to release a vague color-coded plan, while the union representing school service personnel said it was not consulted on Justice’s WiFi hotspot plan for students.

The West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association held a last-minute joint press conference Thursday afternoon at the service personnel headquarters on Charleston’s East End.

They were joined by Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, the Democratic candidate for governor challenging Justice in November.

Joe White, executive director for the service personnel union, said his organization was not consulted by Justice or school officials about Justice’s Kids Connect program, unveiled Wednesday during Justice’s COVID-19 briefing.

The $6 million Kids Connect would create 1,000 wireless hotspots at 688 K-12 schools, 255 public libraries, 323 higher education facilities and 31 state parks. Justice said the plan is to have the WiFi hotspots up and running by Sept. 8, the target date for students to return to school. Justice said bus transportation would be provided for students needing access to the hotspots.

White said there’s not enough bus drivers or funding to make that plan feasible. Plans to provide transportation for students for athletic practice and after-school activities, as well as provide meals for those students, were also vague.

“We cannot continue to come up with last-minute plans and off-the-cuff ideas,” White said. “This means our bus operators are going to be driving students to school, remote learners to hotspots, delivering food, and now athletes to practice. How many different meals are our cooks going to have to prepare? Folks, this is just not possible. We do not have enough bus operators currently for regular runs. This is just one example of poorly prepared plans.”

Justice and Clayton Burch, the state superintendent of schools, also announced Wednesday the beginnings of a new color-coded system to determine when schools are safe to be open, when they need to switch to a hybrid of in-person learning and virtual teaching, and when schools need to completely close based metrics to be determined over the next 14 days.

Fred Albert, president of AFT-WV, accused Justice of causing unneeded anxiety with his announcement, which he first teased Monday, only for the announcement to be insignificant.

“During a crisis, people need facts and clear direction. They don’t need two days of buildup and anxiety about an announcement that provided no substantial new information on the process of reopening our schools,” Albert said. “Educators and parents have been contacting us, because they were left with more questions and confusion than they had prior to the Governor’s remarks.”

Justice shut down the state’s 55 school systems on March 13 before the state had any reported cases of the virus after shutting down the girls state high school basketball tournament earlier that week. Justice signed an executive order July 24 allowing colleges and universities to start and setting Sept. 8 as the target for reopening public and private K-12 schools.

County boards of education are required to submit plans for reopening by Aug. 14 and plans must include a five-day in-person learning plan, a blended learning plan and an all-virtual plan. Schools must also require face masks for students in grades 3 and up when students are outside their core class or in congregant areas, mark and designate six feet of spacing in certain areas to follow social distance guidelines, and other health guidelines.

Salango issued his own plan for safely reopening schools July 20 at AFT-WV’s new headquarters with both the AFT-WV and the WVSSPA’s help. The plan calls for at least $116.8 million of the $1.25 billion the state received in April from the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act to be invested in all 55 county school systems to make schools safer from COVID-19 spread.

This plan includes providing WiFi hotspot devices to students, temperature check systems at schools, improved ventilation, and hiring of health professionals in schools. It also provides for testing of students, teachers, and staff for COVID-19, adjusting student-teacher ratios, and hiring of more staff.

“We are 33 days out from school re-entry. Unfortunately, we’re going the wrong way because we do not have decisive leadership,” Salango said. “We must contain this virus through smart, proactive steps. Instead, our Governor has been shooting from the hip.”

Justice’s campaign fired back at Salango, accusing him of using the unions as political props.

“Gov. Justice is committed to keeping students and teachers safe, ensuring a world-class education, and empowering local school leaders to make reopening decisions that are best for their communities based on scientific metrics,” said Clay Sutton, the Justice campaign communications director. “It’s sad to see Ben Salango force our teachers and school service personnel to engage in partisan politics when so many West Virginians are focused on keeping their families safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Both the service personnel and AFT-WV said they’ve reached out to Justice and officials in the governor’s office only to receive no response. The unions are evaluating all the reopening plans by county school systems. Some plans they said they were fine with. Others plans gave them pause, though they did not identify those specific counties. Both unions agreed that any reopening plan must be based on science and facts.

A request for comment from the state’s other teacher’s union, the West Virginia Education Association, was not returned. Both WVSSPA and AFT-WV said they have not reached out to the WVEA.

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