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Union: Teachers Concerned Over School Reopening Plans

CHARLESTON — More than 64 percent of teachers are concerned about new plans to reopen schools in less than one week as COVID-19 cases grow.

The West Virginia Education Association released the results of a survey of nearly 3,500 members Tuesday, showing a majority have concerns with returning to in-person school five days per week as long as teachers are not fully vaccinated.

The release of that survey came as the state Board of Education is scheduled to meet today to discuss school reopening plans.

“We’re all in the uncharted territory of the pandemic and managing as best we can,” said WVEA President Dale Lee on a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “But with the pandemic raging in our state at levels not seen before, it appears that in many areas of the state, those two things — a full five day in-person learning and safety — can not happen at the same time.”

The association represents teachers and school administrators in the state. It is one of the unions with the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association representing educators and school workers.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 meaning the least fearful about returning to in-person and 10 meaning the most fearful, 33 percent of teachers were a 10, with 12.65 percent being a 9 and 18.57 percent being an 8.

When asked if respondents were comfortable having students in-person five days a week in either their classroom or in their school, 85.03 percent said no.

Those who said no, more than 48 percent, went on to say they were most concerned about the high COVID-19 infection rates in their communities, while more than 38 percent said they were concerned about not being able to properly socially distance at their schools.

When asked what they would consider to be a necessary element needed for them to safely return to in-person learning, 40 percent said teachers would need to be fully vaccinated first, meaning receiving both doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Another 30 percent said they would feel more comfortable with schools going to a hybrid/blended model, where schools are only open certain days.

“In this time of extraordinarily high infection and transmission rates of the virus, our employees simply want to be able to continue with those safe practices in the workplace,” Lee said. “While they’re concerned about their students and want them back in class, they can’t ignore their fears and concerns over their own safety and the safety of their families. They feel it is simply too early to return.”

Gov. Jim Justice announced at the end of December that all Pre-K, elementary and middle schools would open for in-person learning regardless of the county’s color on the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System map, which ranges from green with a low infection rate or percent of positivity to red for substantial community spread of the virus. The weekly map maintained by the Department of Education will be discontinued.

“After the governor’s announcement of full-time in-person learning just before the new year, most educators and state residents were caught off guard,” Lee said. “Our members immediately began expressing concern for their safety and the safety of their students and families.”

High schools would also be allowed to reopen for in-person learning for all colors except red counties. Regardless of color, county school systems would still have the authority to decide to open in-person or not open depending on map metrics.

On Monday, Justice also said state health experts might release new metrics to determine what counties are orange and red, raising the threshold for what counties could remain open before their number of cases pushes them into the red. Those new metrics could be released today.

State officials also announced an effort to get the vaccine to teachers and school service personnel age 50 and older before the Jan. 19 start date for schools, circling back for teachers and staff younger than age 50 as soon as possible. But both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots spread out 21 and 28 days respectively, apart, meaning no teacher or staff member would be able to get both shots before Jan. 19.

Lee thanked Justice and state health officials for trying to get educators vaccinated.

“We know the Department of Education and the National Guard are working to get the vaccine doses out to the county school employees,” Lee said. “Vaccinating employees is a key component to safety in buildings and allowing for the full-time return of our students.”

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