CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – As a strike by West Virginia teachers drags on, students are playing a waiting game – and for some, more video games – as they find ways to keep busy.
The teacher walkout over pay and benefits in this Appalachian mountain state shuttered classrooms Feb. 22 but shows no signs of an immediate resolution. Now some schoolchildren are spending more time at the soccer field or the skating rink while parents are kept anxiously waiting and trying to fill those idle hours.
And teachers are showing rising discontent as the strike drags on, amid concerns about their own income.
Classrooms are expected to remain closed again Monday as angry teachers head back to the West Virginia Capitol again seeking to press legislators to raise their pay, some of the lowest in the nation. A conference committee of both the state House and Senate has yet to address two different bills aimed at ending the strike.
“What we’re seeing is a movement in the U.S. Not just a labor movement. It’s a class of people rising up,” said Sam Brunett, an art teacher at Morgantown High School.
After four years without any pay increase, many teachers said they’d rather be in the classroom. But they say they believe they’ve come too far to back down.
“We feel like we’re under attack constantly,” said Cody Thompson, a social studies and civics teacher at Elkins High School. “Eventually whenever you’re pushed into a corner, you’ve got to push back.”
The walkout began last month after Gov. Jim Justice signed a 2 percent pay raise for next year. The House of Delegates later approved a 5 percent increase negotiated last week by Justice with the unions.
Then on Saturday, the state Senate approved a 4 percent raise, prompting angry union officials to vow to stay out of the classroom indefinitely. The House wouldn’t agree to the Senate’s move, sending the bill to the conference committee.
House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt said Sunday no committee meeting has been scheduled. So the wait continues.
Keeping schools shut for 277,000 students and 35,000 employees has been determined on a day-to-day basis. In a state with a 17.9 percent poverty rate, teachers and volunteers have gathered food for distribution to students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches at school.
To make ends meet for themselves, many of these teachers have side jobs.
Brunett does freelance art work on the side. Thompson has sold pizza, served tables and worked at a discount store. He now also works in a federally funded outreach program to help prepare students for college.
Kristie Skidmore, an elementary school reading specialist, has an adult clothing shop at her home.
“You’re looking at people here who every day care about other people, other families. People’s kids,” Skidmore said. “But at the end of the day, now we’re forced to be able to figure out how to care for our own families. That’s what it’s all about.”
As for the students, it’s not like they can go with their families on a long vacation.
At a Charleston mall, Cheryl Carty said her niece – second grader Zoey Lanier – has filled the void with activities that have included a visit to a museum children’s exhibit and a trip to the movies.
While saying she is “very supportive” of the teachers, Carty said she is worried about the students during the strike.
“They are being punished for it, too,” Carty said.
Between licks of ice cream, Zoey said she was disappointed she couldn’t return to school to turn in an art project she worked hard on that was due.
Elsewhere, Brady Stafford and about a dozen of his friends got in some extra practice at a South Charleston soccer field.
Stafford, a Charleston seventh grader, said that since the strike began, he’s attended sleepovers and played Xbox games. His friend, seventh grader Ben Jamerson, admitted he’s had bouts of boredom.
At a nearby ice arena, Melissa Hodges took her two daughters for regular skating lessons. Additional bonding with mom aside, fifth grader Kelsie Hodges is ready to get back to school. “I miss my friends,” she said.
Meanwhile, sixth grader C.J. Napper signaled he was in no rush to get back to classes.
“I don’t like school. It’s not fun,” Napper said. “I don’t mind” the walkout.