Back to School: West Virginia Teachers Return to Classroom After Strike

The West Virginia teachers, some of the lowest-paid in the country, had gone without a salary increase for four years

Schools across West Virginia reopened Wednesday as families got back into their daily routines following a nine-day teacher strike.

The statewide strike was declared over Tuesday after the Legislature passed and the governor signed a 5 percent pay raise to end what's believed to be the longest strike in state history. The last major strike, in 1990, lasted eight days. The paralyzing walkout shut 277,000 students out of classrooms, forced their parents to scramble for child care and cast a national spotlight on government dysfunction in West Virginia.

These 35,000 public school employees, some of the lowest-paid in the nation, had gone four years without a salary increase.

Now they're back at work, and students are back to their books. Many were a bit slow afoot to get inside despite snow flurries in the air, as the day felt a bit like the end of summer vacation.

Despite losing nine school days, the teachers had solid backing from parents and students, even as they extended their walkout until a third attempt from lawmakers met their demands.

"I feel really good today that school has re-started and I think the teachers had every right to do the strike because they deserve more money," said Stonewall Jackson Middle School student Braycen Foster.

Some parents had a more difficult time with the restart because the 13-day layoff helped them bond more with their kids.

"I want her in school. But when she's off, it's fine with me. I want to keep her as young as I can for as long as I can," Brandie Barber said as her sixth-grader climbed out of their car and grabbed a backpack filled with softball bats.

Nannette Higginbotham had mixed feelings as she said goodbye to her daughter.

"I love having her home, but I'm glad they're getting back to school and getting it over with," she said.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has asked county superintendents to be flexible as they decide how to meet the requirement of having 180 days of school, saying students "have suffered enough." He wants families to have time for summer vacation and doesn't want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.

Some superintendents are mulling whether to cut short spring break, typically in late March, although families often have vacations already slotted during that time.

"I think these two weeks they had off should be their spring break," Higginbotham said. "Some people have plans. We don't."

The relief and exhilaration teachers expressed in the Capitol Tuesday as legislators approved the pay raise and Justice swiftly signed it transferred to their classrooms on Wednesday.

In a Stonewall Jackson hallway, students filed past a sign that read "Welcome back, let's roll."

Teacher Hannah Silverman said she was "pumped."

"I was like a kid on the first day of school last night, I literally couldn't sleep," Silverman said. "So, I was really excited, this is my passion. I want to be here and I've been excited since we found out yesterday."

Teachers walked out on Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill Justice signed that would have bumped up pay by just 2 percent in the first year, not enough to cover their rising health insurance costs.

Justice responded last week by offering 5 percent and the House approved it, but the Senate balked, countering Saturday with 4 percent. The unions held firm and the lawmakers finally gave in, voting unanimously in both houses for 5 percent raises for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers.

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said lawmakers will seek to cut state spending by $20 million to pay for the raises, taking funds from general government services and Medicaid. Other state workers also promised 5 percent raises will have to wait for a budget bill to pass.

After the long layoff, Stonewall Jackson student Angel Davis said she tried to persuade her sister that it's good to be back in school.

"I was happy," she said. "I said I want my education."

Associated Press writers Robert Ray and Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.

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