CHARLESTON (AP) — A West Virginia teachers union on Monday filed a legal challenge to the state’s color-coded map that determines whether counties can hold in-person public school classes and athletic competitions during the coronavirus pandemic.
The West Virginia Education Association said the filing in Kanawha County Circuit Court seeks to replace the school reentry map that has undergone multiple changes by Republican Gov. Jim Justice and state officials with one compiled by independent health experts.
The map uses five colors ranging from green to red to determine a county’s public school status, depending on the local spread of virus cases. But critics, including the WVEA, said the sheer number of changes to the map has been confusing.
“Our members have watched the constant manipulation of the map,” union President Dale Lee said in a statement. “As each rendition failed to provide the desired results sought by our state leaders, additional changes were made.”
Parents, students and supporters of athletic teams have protested at the state Capitol. Athletic events, including high school football games, have been postponed in counties where virus rates were determined to be too risky to hold sports competitions.
Lee said the map and its metrics “are not looking out for the safety of our students and employees and should not be used as the criteria for school re-opening.”
Justice believes otherwise.
“Our color map, whether you want to cast rocks or whatever, is truly working,” he said at a news conference Monday. “Sure, there’s always things that you’re going to have to change, pivot and move. But it’s doing great.”
The union has endorsed Justice’s opponent, Democrat Ben Salango, in the November general election.
“Isn’t it awfully coincidental that (the court filing is) done three or weeks before an election?” Justice said. “It’s political.”
About three dozen of the state’s 55 counties are currently in the green category where minimal community transmission of the virus is occurring and schools can hold in-person instruction. The union said the latest changes do not mean it is safe to return to school in some counties.
Three counties, Boone, Harrison and Upshur, currently cannot hold in-person classes and must conduct remote learning. Despite about 1,000 active cases in Kanawha County, the most in the state, students there returned to the classrooms on Monday for the first time since school began Sept. 8.
The union said changing a map does not change the challenge to schools because space is limited, social distancing is difficult in many areas, and there are not enough available masks and other personal protective equipment.
“No one wants in-person education more than our members, but they no longer feel their safety is the top priority of our state government’s leadership,” Lee said. “Our goal is for students to return to school as soon as possible but we must be able to do that safely based on the circumstances in individual counties.”
Lee noted a large portion of West Virginia’s teaching population is older. The virus usually results in only mild to moderate symptoms, but is particularly dangerous for the elderly and people with underlying health problems.
More than two-thirds of WVEA members have identified either themselves or someone in their immediate household who had conditions that put them at risk for contracting the virus, Lee said.