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Columnists
John David: A plan for a new tomorrow (Opinion)

There has been much said about the shortage of workers in the post-pandemic period. Unfortunately, this might not be universally true, or a permanent sign that full recovery is around the corner.

The first reason pertains to a likely resurgence of COVID-19 through the delta variant. Dr. Clay Marsh, at West Virginia University, already has expressed concern for those not vaccinated, which covers nearly half the population of West Virginia. The new variant spreads rapidly and is deadly. Even those already vaccinated likely will need booster shots by winter, as well.

The second reason pertains to the fact that many lost jobs are being permanently eliminated. The pandemic created an opportunity for many businesses to change their employment configurations.

As noted by Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, “when demand falls, it’s a natural time to re-tool or invest because you won’t lose customers or sales while you tinker and shut things down.”

The result will cause a major transfer to digital technology, ranging from production to personal services at all levels.

Current tax code also highly favors the write-off of investments in capital expenditures, thereby indicating the surge in labor-intensive job openings will be short-lived and might be relegated to part-time work that will not provide a sustainable, livable existence.

The effects will be major for workers in West Virginia who will have to be retrained for skills needed in new careers. Previously, this occurred for miners as a result of the 1950 Mechanization Agreement between the United Mine Workers union and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which caused a major population exodus and cost a congressional seat. But then, conditions were different because of blue-collar opportunities elsewhere.

The problem is more serious today. Many of those here who will be displaced by the new technology and job configurations do not have the educational background to adapt, thereby necessitating a major need for retraining programs, coupled with educational attainment for new professional careers. This also will be a problem for incumbent workers vying to advance in their careers or from part-time employment.

Equally troublesome are “training repayment agreements,” in which workers might initially grab any job available at the immediate moment but are forced to pay back employers for the cost of job training if they are fired or quit — thereby relegating them to subsistence low-wage servitude.

One proposed program that has come into focus is a special project of the Southern Appalachian Labor School. It is a program that would create a new lifeline for displaced coal miners who would obtain GEDs (if needed), be enrolled in an associate degree technical program, receive professional construction competency certifications and construct rehabilitated housing in coal camp communities, as well as the proposed infrastructure projects envisioned by Congress.

The proposal, endorsed by members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, UMW President Cecil Roberts and many others in the economic development community, is pending approval by various agencies that are focused on creative recovery initiatives and worker transition in the coalfields.

There is a desperate need for something basic and innovative to be done. As noted by reporter Phil Kabler in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, CNBC summarized in its 2021 report, “America’s Top States for Business,” that “West Virginia offers low costs, but poor education and a lack of innovation leaves it in a deep hole.” It also noted that West Virginia ranks near the bottom for technology and innovation, access to capital and education.

Clearly the program proposed by the Southern Appalachian Labor School is a breath of fresh air that combines workforce transitions, housing and community development into a viable economic transformation that is needed for a new tomorrow in West Virginia.


Columnists
Froma Harrop: Mental distress fuels crime, extreme politics (Opinion)

Anti-social behavior has reached pandemic levels. Disruptive airline passengers are punching flight attendants. Thugs are attacking Asians, gays and other minority groups. Criminals have grown more brazen in bringing violence to the streets and into American politics as seen in the savage invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Mental illness clearly underlies a lot of these disturbing trends, with the cracks widening during the COVID-19 scourge. The pandemic deprived many of community, personal interaction and, for those on the edge of psychological breakdown, the in-person mental health services they relied on or need.

America’s system for supporting good mental health has never been strong to begin with. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act did help expand coverage, but getting insurance to pay for treatment of serious psychiatric problems remains problematic.

And the need has risen. From March through October of last year, hospital emergency rooms saw a surge of patients seeking urgent mental care, according to JAMA Psychiatry. The numbers were far lower in the same months of 2019, right before the pandemic hit. The crises ranged from suicide attempts to drug and opioid overdoses to abuse of partners and children.

Last year, a third of American adults displayed symptoms of clinical anxiety or depression, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was up from 11% in previous years.

Many of the Capitol insurrectionists had a history of mental illness and related social dysfunction. We made fun of several.

Eric Munchel of Nashville, Tennessee, who brought restraints police use on hands, legs and arms to the Capitol, was dubbed the “zip-tie guy.”

Actually, Munchel had been charged with assaulting a man and woman in 2013. Recently fired from his job at a bar, he entered the Capitol costumed in paramilitary gear, his mother at his side.

Sean McHugh of Auburn, California, who attacked Capitol police with chemical spray, had accused the officers of “protecting pedophiles.” McHugh, it turns out, had done jail time for statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl.

It was thought at first that Rosanne Boyland had been crushed to death in the rush of stampeding vandals, but the medical examiner concluded that the Georgia resident died from an overdose of amphetamines. Boyland had a history of drug use, including a charge of felony drug possession. The pandemic cut off her in-person group meetings of addicts.

When you look at some of the creeps who had been attacking Asians, you find something more than the usual racial animus. For example, the homeless man seen viscously stomping on a 65-year-old woman of Filipino origin in New York is Black. He was on parole for having killed his mother in front of his 5-year-old sister.

Another homeless man with 90 prior arrests was charged with slashing a gay man. Both the criminal and the victim were Latino.

You see madness in the faces of airline passengers throwing tantrums over demands that they wear masks. Videos show the protesters, usually women, making noisy and self-righteous stands for their right to break the rules. No matter how normally these disrupters dress, they radiate the look of the unhinged.

The mission here isn’t to solve the dearth of psychiatric services for those barely hanging on. Others can better do that. Rather, it’s to note that fragile psyches often lie beneath the growth of appalling behavior. And a society in the grips of fraying social ties is going to suffer more of it.

We now have an evil mix of social isolation and extremist rhetoric that some use to confer an air of respectability to their delusions. The social services that keep the mentally unbalanced in check need to be strengthened — and soon.


Editorial
Gazette-Mail editorial: Pandora's Box is open with online charters

West Virginia Board of Education member Stan Maynard made an astute observation last week during a meeting at which the board authorized legislation allowing online-only charter schools.

He noted how education leaders and Gov. Jim Justice had demanded schools reopen to in-person learning in January, when the pandemic was still raging, using the argument that online education was inadequate. So, naturally, authorizing charter schools that are completely online and lack the same accountability as public schools seemed counterintuitive.

“I just have a concern we’ve opened Pandora’s Box and somebody can step through,” he said.

It’s pretzel logic, much in the same vein of Republican legislators mocking COVID-19 precautions during the legislative session, but using the threat of the virus as an excuse to keep the public out while checking off long-time wish-list items — charter schools among them.

Maynard wasn’t concerned enough to vote against the policy changes — which also allow for more brick-and-mortar charter schools in the state, and establish a non-elected committee to approve those charters so they can bypass the authority of local school boards. Debra Sullivan was the only board member to vote no.

Still, a good point is a good point. Pandora’s Box is open. Many GOP legislators wanted public money for private charters, with the spiteful bonus of sticking it to the unions that represent public school teachers. They got it.

What did they really win? Well, the studies say poorer education results for children in a state with the third-oldest population in the country and the largest loss of population over the past 10 years.

In a column last year, University of Notre Dame sociology professor Mark Berends noted that, in Indiana, when children went from public school to online charters, “these kids’ achievement drops like a ton of bricks.”

Berends authored a peer-reviewed study on Indiana’s online charter schools, which found the student-to-teacher ratio was approximately 100 to one.

The Stanford University Center for Research on Education also found that online charters didn’t make the grade in a study, with center director Margaret E. Raymond telling The Washington Post, “It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

Yet another study, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that online charter students in Ohio were lower achieving than public school students and didn’t perform as well on standardized testing.

Again, though, the best and most recent evidence is that West Virginia’s own leaders — such as Justice and state schools superintendent Clayton Burch — told the entire state in January that kids had to go back to school, because online learning was failing them.

But unbridled, unchecked online charters are now apparently good for the state’s children? Some of these folks probably need a chiropractor after all of that contortion.


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