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Teacher unions not happy with school plans

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s two unions representing educators are not happy with plans to bring staff and students back to school in-person and are skeptical about plans to have teachers vaccinated against COVID-19 in time.

Gov. Jim Justice announced last week that Pre-K, elementary schools and middle schools will reopen for in-person learning Jan. 19 regardless of a county’s color on the County Alert System map.

High schools also will reopen for in-person learning as long as the county is not listed as red due to high infection rates or percent of positivity.

As result of the changes, the weekly Department of Education County Alert System map is being discontinued in favor of the County Alert System map updated daily by the Department of Health and Human Resources. As of Tuesday, 48 out of 55 counties were red for high rates of COVID-19 infection or high percent of positivity rates.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, was not happy Justice and the Department of Education did not reach out to educators when introducing the new reopening plans. Lee said the state should be more cautious, especially since a new strain of COVID-19 is in the U.S.

“I’m angry that educator’s voices are not being listened to,” Lee said by phone Tuesday. “We need to ensure the safety of our educators, our students and our students’ families. To suddenly disregard whatever map you’re using when the cases are higher right now than they’ve ever been and to say it’s safe to go in doesn’t it make sense.”

To prepare for the reopening of schools, Justice announced teachers and school service personnel aged 50 and older would receive either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The goal is to vaccinate older teachers and staff first, then vaccinate teachers and staff younger than 50.

But both vaccines require a booster shot, meaning someone receiving the Pfizer shot would get the second shot 21 days later, while someone receiving the Moderna shot would receive the second shot 28 days later. Teachers and staff receiving the shot today would not receive the second dose before the Jan. 19 start date.

State health officials said Monday that even receiving the first dose would give recipients 50 percent more protection than with no vaccine at all, with the second dose providing up to 95-percent protection. Lee said it would be better to stick to the current school re-entry metrics until all teachers can be vaccinated with both shots.

“I have trouble with that 50 percent coverage,” Lee said. “I’ve heard from many of our educators that the blended models have been working and having very small classes has been safe. They’ve felt comfortable with that. There’s a lot of things that we can do, but to just bring everybody in five days a week is just reckless.”

Both the WVEA and the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said they were surveying their union members to collect opinions on the new school re-entry plans. A joint meeting of the WVEA, the AFT-WV and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association is planned for later in the week.

“Everyone yearns to get back to normalcy. But to get there, we need a plan that protects staff, students and vulnerable members of our community,” said AFT-WV President Fred Albert in a statement. “If returning to in-person instruction is the priority of the governor, he needs to implement and execute a plan that protects the health and safety of those in the school community.”

County school systems are still free to exercise local control and switch to remote learning if they deem it necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as well as continue distance learning for families that opted into the program.

According to a Dec. 21 letter to state Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch from Stephen Wotring, president of the West Virginia Association of School Superintendents and superintendent of Preston County Schools, the statewide infection rate in schools has never risen above .5 percent, while statewide infection rate has fluctuated between 5 percent and 7 percent.

“The color-coded map system, as a measure of school safety, served as a starting point for our state but, there is now ample evidence that the measurement of community infection spread is significantly divergent from the spread of the virus documented in our schools,” Wotring wrote. “To date, the vast majority of our school systems have had a zero rate of transmission within the school. Thus, we contend that schools … are the safest place for both adults and children in any community.”

Lee said those numbers do not align with the actions taken by Justice and the Department of Education, including closing meetings and briefings to the public, as well as moving the start date for Winter sports to March 1.

“The governor is still not having people at his press conferences,” Lee said. “The state board is still not having people at their board meetings. We’ve delayed winter sports until March 1 because we don’t want people in the gym, but yet we’ll allow 70 students in a gym for physical education? We’ll allow 200 students in a cafeteria with no mask for lunch? That doesn’t make sense.”

Speaking Monday, Justice criticized teachers’ unions for working their members up over the new reopening plan.

“If you have naysayers — teachers’ unions — that are rah-rahing people and everything, then let them rah-rah,” Justice said. “I’ve made my recommendation on what to do and our kids need to be back in school.”

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