Gov. Jim Justice and the state Department of Education announced yet more changes to the planned statewide school closures that are meant to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In a news release Saturday evening, the governor and the education department announced a minimum amount of time that schools will be physically closed to students: at least through March 27.
They also announced all public school employees are expected to return to work starting Thursday and Friday, not Monday. County school systems will determine staffing requirements after that.
Justice first announced plans to shutter state schools indefinitely during a Friday morning news conference, and later that day the education department announced that “while schools are closed to students, faculty and staff are expected to report to work.”
But around 6 p.m. Saturday — after pushback from school employees against having to physically show up Monday — Justice and the department sent out their latest news release.
“I have been and will remain in constant contact with Superintendent [Clayton] Burch,” Justice announced, “and we both have heard the concerns of our teachers and school service personnel. We want to make sure all their concerns are taken into consideration as we develop our plans.”
The release said, “Essential staff, as determined by each county board of education, will report Monday, March 16, through Wednesday, March 18, to develop continuity plans for students.” Later, the release said county superintendents will define what “essential” means in their counties.
“Essential personnel including transportation staff, custodial staff, and food service staff are necessary during this time to ensure child nutrition efforts are implemented effectively for the over 200,000 students who rely on school meals for their daily nutrition,” the release said. “County boards of education may use school buses to transport meals to students throughout the duration of the closure.”
“During this time,” the release said of Monday through Wednesday, “the county superintendents will work with local boards of education, leadership teams, and essential staff to devise a continuity plan that outlines how to best meet the needs of students and the community during this extended closure.”
Regarding Thursday and Friday, the release said:
“All remaining teachers and staff will return to work on Thursday, March 19, and Friday, March 20, to make sure plans are properly implemented so student needs, educator well-being, and the continuity of instruction are properly addressed. County boards of education will determine staff requirements for Monday, March 23, and beyond. The county leadership team may choose to establish flexible work options including adjusted schedules and remote work.”
The Gazette-Mail interviewed multiple teachers and others before Saturday’s announcement waiving the requirement to physically show up to work Monday.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association school workers union, said, “We’ve expressed concerns that we’ve heard from our members, particularly those with some illnesses and some medical problems and things like that.”
Mercer County English teacher Karli Nelson said she was meticulous about disinfecting her classroom long before the world knew of COVID-19.
Nelson has Stage 4 breast cancer and gets chemotherapy every three weeks, making her one of those immunocompromised individuals at greater risk from the coronavirus, she said.
She said she’s worn a mask for over two years. During flu season, between each of her classes (at a minimum), she’s had her students wipe down their desks while she wipes down the classroom’s door handles, she said.
“I wipe down the laptop, knob to the cart that opens the laptops, I wipe down the smart board button,” Nelson said. “Pretty much anything I can think of ... the bathroom pass, and the pen they use to sign out to go to the bathroom.”
Nelson said, “I feel that everything I could be doing for my job and my students I could be doing from home.”
The state’s county school systems have invested millions in technology.
Though services are uneven from community to community, some counties, like Kanawha, provide computers to most students.
“Teachers have families, too,” Nelson said, “and a lot of teachers are mothers and fathers and they have children, and you don’t know what populations the teachers are coming home to.”
South Harrison Middle science teacher Kellee Shuttleworth said she has a son with Type I diabetes. Sickness can dangerously affect diabetics’ blood sugar levels.
“I feel like it’s counterproductive for the intent of what this shutdown is,” Shuttleworth said of requiring teachers to show up Monday. “We have all this technology that we could be utilizing, why aren’t we utilizing it to keep everybody safe?”
“My husband’s grandmother, we check in on her. There are so many people in our state that are at risk to have catastrophic consequences from this virus,” she said. “This is a situation we’ve never faced before in this country, and I’d rather feel stupid for being overly cautious than have something terrible happen to my child because I brought something home to him.”
Wendy Bird, a teacher at Berkeley County’s Mountain Ridge Intermediate, said she has an autoimmune disease and a granddaughter who has had six surgeries.
Bird said she’s not worried about her granddaughter getting COVID-19 as much as she’s worried that, if hospital resources are consumed by a spike in coronavirus cases, her granddaughter won’t be able to get the care she needs.
Her granddaughter waited seven hours to get into the emergency room Friday, Bird said.
“The hospitals are saying we don’t have enough oxygen machines, we don’t have enough to take care of the people who do get it. We need to curb it before it gets to that point,” she said.
Jay O’Neal, a Kanawha County teacher and a current candidate for president of the West Virginia Education Association school workers union, noted some teachers are themselves elderly.
“None of us have any problem working,” O’Neal said. “It’s not that. We just don’t see why we need to be at school to do it and there’s a lot of concern about catching something or spreading something at school.”