CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The head of a West Virginia teachers' union expressed doubt Monday that public schools can reopen with face-to-face instruction in early September based on recent trends with the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we were to start school today, it's not safe,” Fred Albert, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said at a news conference. He held out hope that the outlook will improve, but “we're not there now.”
Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Jim Justice targeted Sept. 8 as a tentative date to open schools, noting that the timing could change depending on the state’s virus caseload. Many schools districts had been set to start instruction by mid-August.
Justice said Monday that he’s “absolutely not willing” to reopen schools unless he’s certain, based on expert advice, that it’s “safe and the thing to do.”
While the state has issued tentative guidance on school openings, the decision to hold in-person instruction, online classes or a combination of both is being left to individual counties, unless Justice decides not to let children return to classrooms at all.
When Albert was asked what the proper criteria is to open schools, he said that first, “we’ve got to get the numbers under control.”
However, “there’s nothing that teachers, parents and students want more than to be back in school,” he said.
Students finished the last school year with online instruction after Justice ordered classrooms closed on March 13. Albert said having students take classes remotely “wasn't easy.”
West Virginia didn't have a single confirmed case of the virus when the March announcement was made. Now, the state has reported nearly 5,100 positive cases and at least 100 deaths. The number of confirmed cases has doubled in the past month.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Salango, who faces Justice in November, said alongside Albert that there must be statewide coordination and “clear direction” on the necessary steps to open schools.
"We can't just shift the calendar," Salango said. “If we don’t take proper steps now and plan, our schools are going to be breeding grounds.”
Using federal CARES Act funds, he said those measures would include ensuring every school is properly ventilated and providing them with temperature-checking scanners and health professionals, giving each student a tablet and WiFi hot spot access for taking courses at home, increasing the network of school buses to maintain social distancing, and supplying teachers, service personnel and students with face masks and other protective equipment.
In addition, more certified teachers and support staff should be hired to allow for an improved teacher-to-student ratio for both virtual and in-classroom learning. Cleaning equipment also must be upgraded to properly sanitize school facilities and buses. And the state must have available virus testing for staff and students, he said.
Salango, who received the endorsement of both the West Virginia Federation of Teachers and the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, said carrying out his suggestions would cost more than $100 million, most of it for iPads and WiFi access.
Justice said later that the state has received $94 million from the federal government for virus-related expenses for elementary and secondary education. He did not specify how the money will be spent, saying he will “defer to the experts” in the education system.
On the other suggestions, Justice said “everybody wants to start running in a direction and everything and saying something when they don’t have any idea what in the world they're even talking about. At the end of the day, it’s a political football. It’s a political season."
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.