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Teachers’ union pushes for distance learning in West Virginia

CHARLESTON — Teachers and school administrators who are members of the West Virginia Education Association are calling for all county school systems in West Virginia to start with distance learning on Sept. 8. due to coronavirus concerns.

Dale Lee, president of the Education Association, briefed reporters Thursday on a poll conducted by GBAO Strategies of 4,000 Education Association members between July 21 and July 30. The poll has a 2.5 percent margin of error.

“The situation with the virus is fluid, and no one can predict what will happen a few days from now, let alone a few weeks or months from now,” Lee said. “That uncertainty is a large part of the problem. People need to make plans, and it is difficult to do that in such a fluid situation.”

According to the poll, most Education Association members want schools to wait to reopen, while a plurality of members want schools to continue distance learning for the fall semester. Members trust the West Virginia Department of Education’s reopening toolkit for county school systems, but most don’t trust their individual county reopening plans.

“We all know there is a wide span in the level of comfort and the sense of safety that people have going back to school,” Lee said. “It varies based on health conditions, family situations, location, and even political leanings. No single decision regarding the fall school term will make everyone happy, but everyone agrees that the health and safety of our students and educators must be paramount in any decision that is made.”

According to the poll, 80 percent of the members said schools should only physically reopen for in-person learning when cleared by health experts, while 20 percent believe it’s important to get back to in-person learning.

When asked if they favor allowing school systems to devise their own reopening plans as long as they met the Department of Education’s minimum requirements, 75 percent said they favored that while 25 percent opposed that.

All Education Association members said it was important for teachers to be involved in the development of local reopening plans, with 100 percent saying it was important and 92 percent saying it was very important. Of those polled, 99 percent said students and teachers should be required to follow all recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and provide hand sanitizer throughout the school, 98 percent said all surfaces need disinfected between groups of students, 97 percent said visitor access should be prohibited, and 94 percent said that group gatherings in commons areas need limiting.

Among the biggest issues for the Education Association is enforcing mask wearing and social distancing. Of those polled, 82 percent said face masks should be required in schools for students and educators with 13 percent saying no one should be required. However, 92 percent said it would be difficult to ensure that students wear their masks. Another 95 percent said it would be difficult to implement social distancing in classrooms.

Lee said 66 percent of Education Association members believe they are at risk for being infected with COVID-19 either due to age, health conditions or having direct access to a family member in the at-risk category. Members are concerned they don’t have the staff needed in school to enforce masks and social distancing.

“We have had many of our locals working with our school districts in coming up with some tremendous plans, but in many instances a short time frame and the continued uncertainty has not allowed employees or parents to be comfortable with those plans,” Lee said.

National teachers’ unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, have threatened “safety strikes” in states that continue school re-opening plans while coronavirus outbreaks continue. While the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association have not threatened strikes, they have said they will support local county affiliates depending on the circumstances in those counties.

The West Virginia Education Association made a similar statement Thursday, but it also acknowledged that some county re-entry plans are acceptable and are aware that some counties have had very few outbreaks of the virus since the first case on March 17. Lee said it will support local union decisions based on the circumstances in the county.

“Regardless of whether those plans are implemented on Sept. 8 or somewhere down the road, it is necessary for plans to be in place and those plans will be vital as we move through the fall,” Lee said. “However, given the current opinions of our members and conditions of the coronavirus in West Virginia, we need a quality education in place for the fall, but we need to err on the side of safety.”

County boards of education have until today to submit school re-entry plans to the Department of Education.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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