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‘They’re not ready’: West Virginia teacher strike expected to continue Monday

Thousands of teachers and school personnel descended Friday on the state capitol in West Virginia to demonstrate on the second day of a statewide teacher walkout. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail/AP)

A work stoppage that has kept teachers and students out of public schools in West Virginia is expected to continue Monday, union leaders announced Friday.

“Our members have spoken and are not prepared to go back to work yet,” Dale Lee, West Virginia Education Association president, told reporters at a news conference. “Therefore, teachers [and] service professionals across the state of West Virginia will continue to be out on Monday.”

More than 277,000 public school students were out of class Thursday and Friday. All 55 counties in the state closed schools, said Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education. A map on the department’s website on Friday was covered in red, a color that indicated closures, which illustrated the sweeping impact of the strike.

At Friday’s news conference, Lee indicated that 55 counties will again feel the impact of the strike. Educators will tell county officials that there won’t be enough people to staff schools Monday, Lee said, and will suggest that those buildings remain closed.

“We’ve heard educators across the state loud and clear,” he said. “They’re not ready.”

Previously: ‘They have had it’: West Virginia teachers strike, closing all public schools

During the strike, demonstrators descended on West Virginia’s state Capitol in Charleston. Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, a major union, said the crowd that gathered Friday in Charleston included not only educators, but also other school personnel, including bus drivers, cooks and maintenance workers. Some people also stayed behind in their communities for informational pickets, Campbell said.

“There’s thousands of people here in Charleston, but they’re also doing support-public-education pickets out in their communities,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

Teachers in West Virginia are concerned about benefits and pay, but also “attacks on their voice,” Campbell said.

“So our people are standing up, they’re energized, and they’re willing to do what they feel they have to do for our students and public education, to make it a priority,” she said.

Data from the National Education Association shows that West Virginia ranked 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016. According to the figures, which included 50 states and the District, only South Dakota, Mississippi and Oklahoma sat below West Virginia in those rankings.

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The work stoppage came the same week that Gov. Jim Justice (R) announced he had signed legislation giving teachers and state police a 2 percent raise. Teachers were also expected to get a 1 percent increase in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, according to a Wednesday news release.

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

When asked what it would take for teachers to return, Lee said discussions need to restart with state lawmakers.

“We need to go back to the table and start to work on solutions that can be satisfactory to the educators across the state to resolve this,” he said.

Keedy, the state’s Department of Education spokeswoman, said teachers in West Virginia went on strike in 1990, but participation in that stoppage varied county to county and was not statewide.

Campbell said some teachers in the state take on second jobs to make ends meet, including weekend shifts at fast-food restaurants. She mentioned one teacher who was dealing with a health problem but cannot afford her medication, so the teacher does not take it. During the demonstration at the Capitol, Campbell said, she has seen teachers and school service employees asking hard questions of lawmakers.

“They’re having an open dialogue with these people,” Campbell said. “I just believe that it’s time. We’ve seen some complacency over the years, because they didn’t feel like the people are listening to their voice. Now that they have stood up . . . I’m so thrilled that they are actually talking with their representatives and their representatives are talking with their constituents and hearing their concerns.”