FAIRMONT — Jay O'Neal teaches eighth grade at Charleston's West Side Middle School, it's an 80-year-old building where the ventilation system had lived out its better days.
The idea of returning to this building in just over a month scares him, because of the risk for himself or someone else to contract COVID-19.
"Some of my biggest concerns is not actually related to my grade level, so much as it is with facilities," O'Neal said. "My school is 80 years old, it has windows that barely open — sometimes they don't open at all — and the air conditioning in there just recycles the air from the room."
O'Neal is also a member of the West Virginia United Caucus, which works with the three educator unions, the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. Through this group, he teamed up with family health nonprofit Families Leading Change, to convince West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to start school virtually on Sept. 8, rather than have anyone return to their school buildings.
"Across the state, thousands of teachers and service personnel, and parents, are all sharing the same concerns about starting school again in person," O'Neal said. "All of us want to be assured that school is going to start safely. We would like to see it start remotely, until the case numbers drop, then slowly fade in in-person learning."
Our Students First is a collaborative initiative these organizations are pushing across the state, to get information through surveys to send to Justice, and West Virginia School Superintendent Clayton Burch, about maintaining virtual until the number of COVID cases slows down.
"We just feel like parents don't necessarily have a choice," said Jenny Anderson, director of Families Leading Change. "They started with 'How are we going to get the kids in the building,' instead of improving on how we could work better in a remote situation."
According to Anderson, a survey Our Students First conducted received about 2,000 responses, which the group plans to send the governor to sway his thinking to potentially keep schools closed. Anderson said parents and teachers have responded, which she believes makes this survey a good indicator of what people want for the fall semester.
"We did statewide surveys that reached altogether around 2,000 people," Anderson said. "I had focus groups with parents and teachers throughout the last couple months and town halls live on Facebook, so all this was really a collaborative effort. We feel like this is the first time parents and teachers are aligned and on the same page so strongly on an issue."
Anderson and O'Neal both agree there are too many uncertainties to send kids back to in-person schooling, even with altered schedule plans. O'Neal said he is worried about the older demographic of guardians, who may be raising their young grandchildren.
"So many of our students are being raised by grandparents, who we know are more susceptible to the virus," O'Neal said. "I'm worried a student may be asymptomatic... but they could still take it home, give it to grandma or grandpa, and then they have major problems."
Even on its own, the risk of anyone contracting COVID is too much for O'Neal to handle.
"The more we're learning about this virus, the more they're saying it seems to spread by air particles," O'Neal said. "Just having people in the same room together for any extended amount of time, even with masks on, concerns me."
Anderson also said kids will probably end up going back to virtual learning at some point, due to the potential rise in cases reopening schools could cause.
"Regardless of what the governor says, we're going to end up in a remote learning situation at some point," Anderson said. "We want the governor to go on and say 'We're going to start remote and work on improving that.'"
Our Students First led a few Facebook work sessions Monday, which anybody could watch to get information and offer input, and Anderson said the group pushed a virtual rally, in which people were asked to attend their school board meetings, and also post a photo of themselves with a sign online containing their concerns for in-person learning.
"One of the actions for today throughout the week is we want to get parents and educators to go to their school board meetings, virtually or whatever, and speak," Anderson said. "Today we're asking people to post a sign with your concern and talk about your concerns or make a video as a parent or educator."
Anderson said she hopes Gov. Justice would take the concerns listed by Our Students First into account as soon as possible, to potentially change the plan for reopening schools Sept. 8.
"It's negligent in a way to not let us have the opportunity as stakeholders to plan out a really solid plan for remote learning," Anderson said.
O'Neal said these plans won't stop just this week, because Our Students First will continue providing updates to parents and teachers on the status of the state's school reopening plans.
"We're going to really try to keep up the messaging, continue the push and just watch and see what the final plans are," O'Neal said.
For more information on Our Students First, visit the group's website at ourstudentsfirstwv.org.