Jennifer Hanner, a first-year teacher from Harts, W.Va., held a sign Thursday outside the state Senate chambers in Charleston, W.Va. Teachers statewide went on strike Thursday over pay and benefits. (John Raby/AP)

Teachers across West Virginia walked off the job Thursday amid a dispute over pay and benefits, causing more than 277,000 public school students to miss classes even as educators swarmed the state Capitol in Charleston to protest.

All 55 counties in the state closed schools during Thursday’s work stoppage, Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, said.

“Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time,” West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said in a statement this week. “Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden. I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.”

Data from the National Education Association show that in 2016, West Virginia ranked 48th in average teacher salaries. Only Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota sat below it in the rankings, which included 50 states and the District.

Thousands of demonstrators flooded the state’s Capitol on Thursday, said Kym Randolph, West Virginia Education Association director of communication. Lines snaked around the building, she said, with some people waiting more than two hours to get in. The crowd was mostly constituted of teachers, but included parents and students, she said.

“The place was packed,” Randolph said. “It was very loud. That is by far the largest crowd inside the Capitol in a long, long time.”

The work stoppage came not long after Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday he had signed legislation to give teachers and state police a 2 percent raise. That bump in pay would start in July. Teachers were also expected to get a 1 percent increase in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, according to a news release.

“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said in a statement Wednesday. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid, and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”

Randolph, of the teachers union, cited pay and benefits as two key items that are easy to understand, but said the strike was about more than that.

“This is a cumulative strike,” she said. “I mean, the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.’ It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.”

Plans called for the strike to continue Friday, although Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said it was unclear what would happen after that.

“We are assessing the situation,” Campbell said. “We are going to make a determination some time [Friday] on whether or not it’s necessary to take additional action and what that action might be.”

Teachers in the state feel empowered, Campbell said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, since I’ve been here,” she said. “They’re reading bills. They’re talking about it on social media. They’re understanding the process better. They’re reaching out to the legislators at record numbers.”

The Struggle to Stay in WV

Teacher and AFT-Wayne County member Rebecca Diamond discusses her commitment to teaching West Virginia's children versus the struggle to provide for her own.

Posted by AFT-West Virginia on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The salary for beginning teachers in West Virginia is $32,435 a year, and the average teacher salary is $44,701, according to the state teachers union.

West Virginia’s teachers want to stay in the state, Campbell said.

“They just want to make a living wage,” she said. “They just want to have a strong health care system and insurance. So, this is their opportunity to do that. To be heard.”

This post has been updated.

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