CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Board of Education didn’t take action at its emergency meeting Wednesday against the dwindling number of counties that are still defying its order to reopen classrooms.
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said only three counties — Gilmer, Marion and Taylor — still aren’t complying. State board members suggested they may vote Tuesday to punish continued defiance, and they heard a range of options from their top attorney.
The state branch of the American Federation of Teachers union also filed suit Wednesday against the state school board, asking a judge to quickly stop the state board from forcing counties to restart in-person instruction.
AFT’s lawsuit aims to bar the state board from doing that until public school workers are “fully vaccinated,” and the suit projects that will be done by Feb. 15.
The National Education Association union’s state arm announced Wednesday night that it was suing too, along the same lines — but, unlike AFT, it didn’t provide a copy of the filing.
COVID-19 vaccines for school employees began Jan. 7. Those who have received one shot need a second one a few weeks later, and some days after that for immunity to build.
The union’s suit is not just against the state board. It’s also against Burch, the Kanawha County school board and Kanawha Superintendent Tom Williams.
Last week, Kanawha’s board voted unanimously to keep classrooms closed to all but special education students until at least Feb. 8. Union members in Kanawha and elsewhere had urged staying with remote learning countywide until more employees were vaccinated.
But Kanawha’s vote included a proviso that it would reopen classrooms to all students if the state board mandated that. Last week, the state board did order that, for all 55 counties, and Kanawha and almost all other counties reopened classrooms this week.
The union’s suit would again close Kanawha’s classrooms until all employees who want to be vaccinated have gotten their second shot.
“The reality is that West Virginia is close — but has not quite completed — the vaccination of most, if not all, public education employees in West Virginia,” the suit says. “KCBOE (Kanawha County Board of Education) needs only a few weeks to complete vaccination for many employees.”
The suit quotes a state Supreme Court case that said “Implicit within the West Virginia constitutional guarantee of a ‘thorough and efficient system of free schools’ is the need for a safe and secure school environment.”
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, which is under the state board’s oversight, said she had no comment on the suit at this time.
On Monday, state Superintendent Burch reported there were seven counties not complying with the state board’s order to reopen classrooms this week: Berkeley, Gilmer, Harrison, Jefferson, Marion, Monongalia and Taylor.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, Burch said the Jefferson school board had voted that morning to comply. He also said that Harrison was actually bringing students into schools in some capacity starting this week.
Berkeley and Monongalia counties requested exemptions to be allowed to stay with countywide remote learning. But the state board didn’t grant or deny either waiver.
Burch said that Berkeley voted Tuesday night to comply. That rendered its exemption request moot.
Berkeley, the state’s second-most-populous school district, said on its website as of Wednesday afternoon that its exemption had been denied. But Burch said he only sent the county a letter saying he was planning to recommend that the state board deny it.
Pat H. Murphy, one of the Berkeley board members, was under the impression when he voted to reopen classrooms that the waiver had actually been denied.
“That’s my fault because I didn’t read the letter extensively,” Murphy said.
Burch told the state board that the Monongalia board had also voted to reopen classrooms, and Burch didn’t mention any exemption request. But Monongalia board President Nancy Walker said the county had not retracted its request.
But, Walker said that Monongalia voted Tuesday night to reopen classrooms unless the exemption is granted — so they will reopen this week, and the exemption request is still out there.
“We recognize that, constitutionally, the state board has that constitutional provision that we do not,” she said. “I would like to work with the state board on being able to continue to help with local decision-making and local control, which many of the state board members support but in this particular issue they decided they would go with a one size fits all mandate.”
Burch said Gilmer, Marion and Taylor were the remaining counties in non-compliance. Gilmer County Superintendent Patricia Lowther has said her board is meeting Thursday on the issue.
State board President Miller Hall expressed support for taking action next week against counties that still aren’t complying. Like last week, he did this in another high-volume speech.
“They’re going to get it done,” Hall said. “If not, we’ll do it for them.”
“You know what needs to be done, we have 52 counties got it done and you have 800 kids in the whole county,” Hall said — a reference to Gilmer, the state’s smallest school district.