Teachers return to class after cautiously declaring victory

February 22, 2019

ONA — What began like an exhaustive bit of deja vu has apparently ended in a similar fashion.

Though the issues at hand are different from last year’s work stoppage, West Virginia’s public school employees have seemingly had their wishes granted again in 2019.

But a work stoppage is not on any teacher’s school calendar — not one joined the profession to make it an annual occurrence. What they really wanted, in their own words, was to get back to class with the sense their mission had been accomplished.

Thousands did just that Thursday as the two-day, nearly statewide work stoppage (all counties except Putnam) concluded with Senate Bill 451 — the education “omnibus” bill — effectively dead in the West Virginia Legislature. Among other things, that bill provided for charter schools and education savings accounts that parents could use to send students to private schools or for home schooling, features that teachers opposed.

At Cabell Midland High School, it was back to work in Daniella Parent’s creative writing class. When some students sighed at having to come back to class, she launched into the story of her 16-hour Tuesday: waking up at 3:30 a.m., picketing the Putnam County bus complex with dozens of other Cabell County teachers by 4:45 a.m., only to return home at 10:45 p.m. that day to wake up at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday for the same schedule.

“Striking is so much more work than being at school because you’re working to get back to school,” Parent said Thursday between classes. “You have to get these things done, and you have to stress the urgency and stress your reason for it.”

For Parent and teachers in Cabell County, it does feel like mission accomplished for the most part, though some avenues exist for SB 451 to be revived before the legislative session ends. On a whiteboard calendar colorful with classroom assignments, Parent clicked her nails on Feb. 28 — crossover day in the Legislature — the last call for bills to leave their chamber of origin to have a chance at passing.

If that date, which is next Thursday, comes and goes as it stands, SB 451 will officially die in the House of Delegates, which tabled discussion on the bill earlier this week.

Though teachers are still wary of any resurrection efforts, Parent said she feels at ease enough to return to class.

“I’m fairly comfortable with the unions calling off the dogs because I do have a lot of faith in the House,” said Parent, who is represented by the West Virginia Education Alliance.

Down U.S. 60 in nearby Nichols Elementary School, Kelsi Miller’s fifth-graders presented on the solar system as if nothing extraordinary had happened the two days prior.

It was for the better, as Miller put it — there was some small chatter about it, but it was ultimately translated as just a long weekend for the younger students.

“They’re really too young to drag into situations like that,” Miller explained.

Though she herself is non-union, Miller was vocal throughout the process simply because it was the right thing to do for public schools, she said.

The work stoppage jostled their lesson plans, and there’s still some lingering anxiety the bill may again come to life.

But at the end of the school day Thursday, returning to normalcy after another apparent victory was well worth it all.

“We didn’t want to leave in the first place, but we felt like we had to,” Miller said. “We want to be in our rooms, but at the same time we’re watching what’s going on to make sure the legislators are putting our students first.”

SB 451, as first proposed in the Senate, also prevented payment of employees when schools are closed during a work stoppage, opened enrollment allowing students to attend schools in other counties, and removed seniority as the determining factor in employment, transfers and reductions in force.

The bill also featured a controversial nonseverability clause, meaning that if any of the bill’s provisions were found invalid in court, the entire bill would be voided.

Opponents, which included school employees as well as school districts this year, primarily feared the bill’s language would siphon public funding away from public schools to charter schools.

Proponents have billed it as a path to world-class education for a state sorely in need of a boost in that direction, with private charter schools as another option to public schools.

“Striking is so much more work than being at school because you’re working to get back to school.”

— Daniella Parent, English/creative writing teacher at Cabell Midland High School