All smiles as classes resume

Williamstown Elementary School pre-kindergarten student Drew Jones stands with teachers Wednesday morning, welcoming back students and parents. Public schools in all 55 West Virginia counties were closed for nine days as part of a statewide walkout of teachers and service personnel to protest low pay and rising insurance costs.

WILLIAMSTOWN — Students throughout West Virginia returned to school Wednesday as public schools opened for the first time in nearly two weeks.

“It’s great to have teachers and service personnel back,” said Wood County Schools Superintendent John Flint. “They love to be in school. It’s what they do and they are great at it. The parents are happy the schools are open, and I think even the students are eager to get back into a routine.”

The nine-day, statewide walkout started Feb. 22, with teachers and service personnel in all 55 counties protesting low pay and rising insurance costs. A start date was announced last week, but the walkout continued as progress on a pay increase stalled in the state Legislature.

On Tuesday, a bill giving all teachers, service personnel, state police and other public employees a 5 percent pay raise was approved by both the state House and Senate and signed by Gov. Jim Justice.

At Williamstown Elementary School, teachers lined up out front of the school holding signs to thank community members for their support. They greeted students and parents as they came to school.

“Our first day back was like the first day of school,” said Principal Heather Bretthauer. “We were so excited to see our kids. The staff at WES is incredible, and we are so very thankful for the support we received throughout this stressful process.”

Jefferson Elementary Center Principal Jodie Pierotti said there were lots of hugs Wednesday morning.

‘The kids were so glad to be back. The teachers were so glad to be back,” she said. “We’re excited to be back in school. You miss the kids,” said Amanda Gillispie, a second-grade teacher at Jefferson. “You know that we’re missing a lot when we’re out, but the reason we were out was pretty important. I feel like it benefits everybody.”

Scott Wilhide, also a second-grade teacher at Jefferson, said this week is about catching up.

“We ended with three-digit subtraction, so we’re sort of revealing that over the next 3-4 days, get everyone back in the swing of things,” he said. “We’re also working on some reading review skills.”

Olivia Kennerly, a fourth-grader at Jefferson, said she was “really happy” to be back in class

“I was hoping we would get to go back to school because I was missing school,” she said. “I think it’s really cool what the teachers were doing.”

Jefferson second-grader Mason Cross said he was happy to be back because he missed his teacher, but after nearly two weeks off school, Wednesday morning was a bit tough.

“It was really hard,” he said. “I had trouble getting up.”

“It was so stressful being off those two weeks, because everything was so day-to-day,” Gillispie said. “We didn’t know how long we’d be out. It really was just day by day.”

The pay increase signed Tuesday by the governor takes effect July 1, and for teachers is a little more than $2,000 a year in additional pay. But school systems are still trying to figure out what to do about the nine instructional days lost during the work stoppage.

Justice has instructed State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine to work with county-level superintendents to provide “flexibility” in how those lost days are accounted.

Flint said Wood County Schools officials met Wednesday to begin working on options and he hopes to bring three possible plans of action to the Wood County Board of Education at its next meeting Tuesday.

Flint said he likely would not provide details of the options prior to presenting them to the school board. Flint also said officials are hoping for additional guidance from the state, which may change what is presented Tuesday to the board.

Flint said he does not believe a loss of instructional days earlier this year will affect the district’s plans. Wood County canceled classes for five days in October due to a fire at the IEI Plastics warehouse in south Parkersburg.

Firefighters battled the blaze for more than a week, prompting calls for people to shelter in place due to the thick black smoke and smell of burning plastics which covered the valley. The governor declared a state of emergency for Wood County and the state superintendent waived those days of instruction for the school system.

“That was a catastrophic event,” Flint said. “It won’t have any bearing on this discussion.”