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CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Education Association, one of the state’s main three public school worker unions, on Thursday called for counties to only start school with remote, or distance, learning.

Schools are scheduled to start reopening in-person classrooms Sept. 8.

While the presidents of the other two unions, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and the state’s American Federation of Teachers chapter, have voiced concerns about current plans to reopen classrooms, they haven’t gone as far as WVEA President Dale Lee now has.

“We have waited to make our comments because we wanted to make a statement that truly reflected the thoughts of our members,” Lee said in an online news conference Thursday.

He then revealed results of a July 21-30 members-only survey that had about 4,000 respondents.

“A plurality prefer maintaining full distance learning this fall,” he said.

He said that “66% of those surveyed considered themselves at risk due to health, age or caregiver concerns.”

“WVEA and its members are urging school districts to begin the school year erring on the side of caution and begin the school term with distance learning,” he said. “Full distance learning will give time for counties to get a handle on the situation and to further iron out the details of how the next steps of the school re-entry will be handled in each location.”

Regarding counties with low numbers of confirmed active COVID-19 cases, he said that “we believe that many counties have tremendous plans and have worked with their educators to develop those plans, but we believe that there are still things that have to be in place, safety measures.”

He mentioned concerns about social distancing, including on buses.

Despite a recent state Department of Education safety video saying otherwise, the department isn’t requiring students on buses in all counties to wear masks. And it’s allowing up to two students per seat, more than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of one per seat on every other row.

“They may have few cases now,” Lee said, “but if we’re not following all the CDC guidelines, with social distancing and the hand-washing, the things that health experts say you need to have in place to stop the spread, there could very easily be another outbreak.

“One outbreak of the virus is one outbreak too many,” he said. “And starting before we are truly prepared will simply force shutdowns and create additional anxiety and uncertainty. Schools don’t exist in a bubble. Should outbreaks occur, they will be brought into buildings and taken back into the student’s home.”

Despite his statewide call, Lee said state union leadership will support county-level WVEA chapters “in any decision that they make with the school reopening.”

He didn’t go as far as specifically calling for strikes if schools try to resume in-person classes Sept. 8.

Lee said after the news conference that WVEA has just over 10,000 dues-paying public school worker members. He said the margin of error, for how much the results represent the full membership’s feelings, is plus or minus 2.5%.

Washington, D.C.-based GBAO conducted the survey, he said.

He said he didn’t immediately have survey results broken down for members from specific counties. Active case numbers vary among counties.

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