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Wilson Harvey, the president of the Upshur County chapter of the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, addresses the Upshur BOE Tuesday about local educators' concerns regarding COVID-19.

Local chapters of WVEA, AFT share COVID-19 concerns with Upshur BOE

FRENCH CREEK – The president of the Upshur County chapter of the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers on Tuesday addressed the Upshur County Board of Education with concerns from AFT and the West Virginia Educators Association.

During Tuesday’s Upshur BOE meeting at French Creek Elementary School, Wilson Harvey, who is also a member of the Upshur County Schools COVID-19 Re-Entry Advisor Board, noted that a week ago, Upshur County went red on the W.Va. Department of Health and Human Resources’ map.

“We called an emergency meeting – a joint meeting – with AFT and WVEA of Upshur County,” Harvey said. “We listened to the concerns of our members, some of which have changed since that letter was sent; however, there are some concerns I wish to address.”

As a result of the meeting, the unions sent a letter to the Upshur BOE – the letter to which Harvey was referring.

Harvey said the meeting was probably one of the largest meetings the groups have had in the past several years because of concerns for the health and safety of members and concerns for the community at large.

“The first, of four points, relates to educating the students and staff of the ‘why’ of social distancing,” he said. “I think we have seen fairly good compliance with that. However, I think sometimes the face coverings are not worn properly, and that leads to a lot of concerns for members, not only for themselves but for the community at large.”

Harvey said one request the group is making is for the school system to address why that is important.

“We educated kids and staff on what to do, but there wasn’t a lot in what we said about how serious of a situation this is,” Harvey shared. “Given our current situation, we didn’t say, ‘this is something with a relatively high mortality rate for a respiratory virus.’ We have to collectively work to follow these measures as best as we can so we can be in person as much as we can, but also be safe as much as possible – not just for our members, but for the parents and grandparents that are out there in our community and for our students who could be affected by this virus.”

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples asked Harvey if he had a plan for how that should go.

“I think we remind folks this is serious for folks who are immune-compromised and for folks who are elderly, so do your part,” he said. “That way it is not just ‘wear your masks’ but ‘wear your masks because you could save a life.’ We need some kind of training like WVU did where you have to show what you learned and just how serious this is. You can’t just tell people what to do; you need to tell them why to do it.”

Another concern in the letter sent to the BOE that Harvey shared was the importance of transparency with numbers of COVID-19 cases in the school. Harvey said he has seen some improvement in that.

“Our members are anxious about cases they may have come in contact with that may have been in the building and our community as well,” Harvey said. “We represent, as a union, the interests not only of our members, but we also need to be thinking constantly of our students and our profession. We take that very seriously. We see in counties around us that numbers can be release with identifiers redacted. I think that would be a helpful tool for us.”

Harvey said the third point the unions wanted to raise is a very tricky but important issue.

“As we move forward, we are still red,” he said. “One thing we want to address is the importance that we address both the infection rate and the amount of spread and the amount of cases. Our members have concerns for themselves, for the students and for the community. Where the map fell, we were able to avoid outbreaks. When you have an infection rate that is high, definitely there is inherent danger. Counties have the ability to make decisions that go further than the map; you can’t go less than the map requires you to do, but you can go further than the map requires. For the interest of safety, significant concern was heard.”

Harvey said there are no easy solutions.

“We discussed in our meeting that students not being in the building is not ideal,” he said. “But it is also the truth that the students who are hit hardest with that are most likely the ones to be hit hardest with this virus if they were contract it, if their parents were to contract it, and if their grandparents were to contract it. For our members, for those students, for their families and for the community, that was something we can change.”

Harvey said on Tuesday, the state’s hospitalization rate climbed to a new high and said the state’s ventilators are right below the highest they have been.

“That’s a concern our members raised,” he added. “The risk – not only to our members, not only to our students and their families and not only for community spread – is still significant given what the state has told us about that map and how it is designed. Very recently, they have been very open to county-to-county decision-making on schools in that sense.”

BOE Vice President Katie Loudin asked if there was some sort of a middle ground where teachers did not have to report to the schools unless there was an arrangement with the individual teacher and administration.

“The ideal would be optional discussions with administration in the building and a form to complete for teachers who did not report in person to school,” he said. “When the infection rate is that high, there could be dangers to the teachers for being in the building and being in contact with others. Certainly, that option needs to be available.”

Upshur County Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus said there is a process for employees who feel unsafe or at risk.

“They can complete a form,” she said.

“We know there are health risks associated with this virus for those who are not immunino-compromised,” Harvey said.

The last point Harvey discussed was returning to five-days-a-week in-school learning for those who have not selected total remote learning.

“One request we made … and our members have requested it … was that it may not be safe until we have a vaccination that is distributed, a vaccination that is successful,” Harvey said. “We don’t know when that will be, and our members are concerned because there have been talks about returning to five days a week in school at the end of the nine weeks. They feel returning before that vaccination is distributed and successful would be dangerous for them and for the community at large.”

The end of the first nine weeks in Upshur County Schools is Nov. 4.

Stankus said there is a stakeholder meeting scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 15.

Dr. Jeffery Harvey, Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said they (the stakeholders) are going to meet and revisit the re-entry plan.

“We are hoping to get back on that and discuss what the re-entry plan looks like,” Jeffery Harvey said. “All options are on the table there. We needed to get back into the buildings and get school started and now it’s time to look at that – and we have some data to look at – and decide what the next nine weeks looks like and what does the subsequent nine weeks look like. We need to engage our community and community partners in that discussion.”

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