On July 20, Gov. Jim Justice rejected calls to use some of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to help schools reopen safely and provide internet and computer access to families who may want their children to return to school remotely.
“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,” Justice said. “You know, at the end of the day, it’s a political football.”
The governor noted prekindergarten through 12th grade schools were already due roughly $90 million in federal funds. A federal relief package mandated that money go to schools, while Justice allocated the separate $1.25 billion at his discretion.
Justice plans to put over half of the $1.25 billion toward an unemployment fund that the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy think tank says isn’t actually an immediate concern, unlike opening schools. The governor is putting $50 million toward highway projects.
Since July 20, announcements and revelations seem to indicate that schools — opening a week from now — do, in fact, need more money. How much more is unclear, but county school systems are currently forgoing safety measures and educational and support services.
On Aug. 3, Kanawha County, the state’s most-populous school system, released a reopening plan that said its online-only students would have to find some way for themselves or their families to reach one of four or five locations in the entire county to pick up federally funded free meals.
In the spring, Kanawha had delivered these meals near their homes. The Food for All Coalition had asked for part of the $1.25 billion to be used specifically to continue deliveries in Kanawha and elsewhere.
On Aug. 10, Justice said that, unlike what was done for West Virginia college students and employees, the state didn’t “have the capability” to test every pre-K-12 student and school employee before the school year began.
On Aug. 17, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch told lawmakers, according to a report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, that over half of students lack reliable internet access.
The governor had recently unveiled a new $6 million program to boost how far free Wi-Fi internet emanates outside schools and other locations.
Burch told lawmakers, “I think it’s a great project, but it is a Band-Aid.”
Kanawha applied to the state Department of Education for about $1 million to provide internet access to its students, about half of whom are attending online-only.
But the department gave Kanawha just under $400,000.
Kanawha has mostly now ditched its plan to use the grant money to give Wi-Fi hotspots to families without internet access. Kanawha spokesperson Briana Warner said Kanawha is still upgrading existing Wi-Fi on its buses that can drive to communities and broadcast there.
She said this was because the hotspots cost more and because of concerns they still wouldn’t work in rural areas. Previously, Kanawha planned to expand access in both ways.
Members of Justice’s own party say more is needed to help schools reopen.
On Aug. 19, when Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Alex Mooney, both R- W.Va., joined the governor at his regular pandemic briefing, the Republican Congress members both said they were working to get $105 billion more for schools across the nation.
“There’s no way that Republicans and Democrats can’t at least agree on supporting our children’s education here in a few weeks,” Mooney said. “At least pass that bill, and we can keep talking about others, but we need to get that through as fast as possible because there’s a deadline: Schools are opening.”
But a Capito spokesperson did say the senator has “been on the record numerous times backing the governor’s approach — specifically saying that he’s being smart by not spending the funds too quickly.”
“Governor Justice understands that Congress has not yet given the flexibility ... to replace tax revenues by the cities, counties and the state,” the spokesperson said. “Congress intends to do so in the next package, but this has not happened yet. Therefore, it’s in his best interest to have funds available to spend if and when that flexibility is granted.”
Justice seemed to suggest Friday that further needs from schools hadn’t yet materialized.
“There’s significant dollars that are there that we can move that way [to schools] and we will move that way immediately upon needing that,” Justice said. “In addition to that, we’re waiting for this additional stimulus package to come, and when it comes — and it will come soon — when it comes there will be another great big bump of dollars.”
The state Department of Education didn’t provide estimates of how much more money counties need to tackle various issues.
Masks and cleaning supplies are one thing. More expensive items include fixing and upgrading ventilation systems, expanding online access and ensuring that even students attending classes remotely get fed.
Justice said Friday “we can confidently, confidently say that all 55 counties, you know, will have what they requested to be able to begin school.”
But multiple teachers have said they haven’t received masks for students or cleaning supplies, or they’ve received paltry amounts of them. It’s unclear whether that’s mostly a funding issue or a delay in shipments issue.
And then there are the ventilation concerns.
“I do not feel that my school is properly equipped to safely reopen. Our ventilation is awful,” wrote Scott Nibert, a Winfield Elementary teacher, in a message to the Gazette-Mail. “And we have many teachers that do not take guidelines seriously. I think that until we get the numbers under control better, we need to be remote [teaching].”
Even if it all arrives in time to begin school, continuing school is another matter.
In the past few days, some county schools superintendents have shared concerns about an impending, not current, dearth of funds.
Wyoming County Superintendent Deirdre Cline wrote in an email that “Wyoming County has enough money to re-enter and then operate safely, in the short term. We are grateful for the funds that have been afforded us and have taken time and energy to spend the funds wisely.”
But, Cline wrote that there is “concern regarding sustainability of the PPE [personal protective equipment], cleaning supplies and other resources necessary regarding safety. If the pandemic continues, there will be a burden placed on our school system to sustain the level of provisions that we have, now.
“I would see that our school system could need another round of funding, comparable to what we have received so far, in the middle of the school year, if the pandemic continues.”
Roane County Superintendent Richard Duncan wrote in an email that “if you were asking simply if we have enough to just get started, I would say ‘yes.’ We’ve installed air purification systems in all schools, thermal scanners on entries, ordered additional iPads for students to use when/if we are fully ‘remote’ later in the year, spent a significant amount on stipends for teacher trainings, stockpiled cleaning supplies and PPE, etc.”
Duncan wrote that Roane, which had about 2,000 students last school year, has thousands of masks and hundreds of face shields stockpiled, with more being donated. The district has partnered with Roane General Hospital to establish clinics in each school for things like entry screening and COVID-19 testing.
But even with all this, Duncan said it’s unknown whether Roane has enough masks, cleaning supplies and other resources to make it through the entire fall semester.
Barbour County schools Superintendent Jeff Woofter said his biggest concern is that his school system is having to pay the state Department of Education for Barbour students to take virtual-only courses.
“For the amount of kids we have signed up for virtual, which is like 360, I believe it’s going to cost us $440,000,” he said.
A department spokeswoman noted Barbour had already received $1.2 million in coronavirus relief.
Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary/Middle School Principals, said he’s concerned about ventilation and questions whether there are enough nurses, custodians and other staff to aid schools.
“And do we have that in the long term?” he said. “Because this is not a Sept. 8 issue, it’s a 2020-21 issue.”
“It would be good if we were investing in the long-term needs while we are addressing the needs of the virus as well,” he said. “We need to be looking at substandard facilities and issues of staffing numbers, to make sure our children’s needs and our schools’ needs are properly met. And I believe some of this money could be used as a dual investment.”
Justice said Friday that “everybody needs to know we’re going to have problems, we’re going to have some level of problems. It won’t be perfect, but I think, absolutely, it’s a good plan and I think we’ve got to continue to try to move forward.”
And on Monday, he said “I am not going to compromise in any way the well-being of our children.”