Amber McCoy, a fourth grade teacher at Kellogg Elementary School and president of the Wayne County Education Association, at the playground behind the school on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Photo by Douglas Soule

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There’s a lot at stake in this year’s elections. But it shouldn’t be about campaign ad wars and horse-race coverage.  

So, Mountain State Spotlight reporters fanned out to four corners of the state, and asked you what’s on your mind at this crucial moment in our history. 

This story is part of what we heard. Click here to read more.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The two towers rivaled the height of the neighboring school.

An assortment of slides slithered from the towers, which rose from opposing ends of a criss-cross of ladders, stairs and playground equipment. Grass and weeds grew up in scattered tufts in the mulch below. 

While students can attend in-person classes twice a week at Kellogg Elementary School in Huntington, the playground is closed until further notice.

The Kellogg Elementary School playground. Photo by Douglas Soule

“They were looking forward to returning to school and were so disappointed when they found out school was not traditional school,” said Amber McCoy, a fourth-grade teacher at Kellogg. “So many things were different than they expected.” 

Things were different for teachers, too. Like most teachers during the pandemic, McCoy has had to master new technology in a short period of time. Teaching was never easy, and McCoy, who is also the president of the Wayne County Education Association, can attest that it’s become even harder during a pandemic. 

“It’s double duty. It’s everything I’m doing in the classroom, transferred online,” she said. 

Added to her teaching duties are the demands placed on her as a citizen, educator and union leader by the 2020 general election, which ends on Nov. 3. And this year, as they have been in recent years, West Virginia’s teachers are very politically engaged. 

“It’s been very important for us to vet every candidate and make sure that they understand how vital education is to the success of the state of West Virginia,” McCoy said. “Every year, we shouldn’t have to fight to do our jobs and that’s really the position that we’ve been put in.”

Respect 

Whether or not they listened, legislators certainly had to hear the shouts.

“You work for us!” The chants from the crowd echoed between the marble walls of the West Virginia Capitol on Feb. 28, 2018. Fighting for better pay and benefits, teachers were nearing a week into the 2018 teacher strike

The strike lasted another week. It ended with a pay raise for teachers and other state employees.  Yet, problems with teacher pay and benefits remain.

All five states neighboring West Virginia pay teachers more, according to Business Insider.

“I’ve known teachers my age that have crossed over to Ohio because they make more, so they can support their families,” said Melissa Crisel, a fourth grader teacher at Buffalo Elementary School.

Crisel cares for three foster children and has one child adopted through the foster care program. She said she’s thankful her kids get Medicaid through the foster program and not her coverage.

“It’s a hot mess,” she said. “Coverage isn’t very good, and the out-of-pocket expenses can get pretty high.”

A post-strike task force created to address problems with PEIA, the health insurance offered to certain West Virginia public employees, has not met since January 2019. 

“We’d like to see some action on that,” said Don Scalise, a history and civics teacher at Cabell Midland High School. 

After the 2018 teacher strike, Scalise helped create an education-focused political action committee called Future of 55. He said the past couple of years have motivated many teachers to become politically engaged.

Scalise said the PAC has supported both Democrats and Republicans. While he and others running it understand legislators may not vote the way they want every time, he said they seek candidates who listen and are accessible. 

But for the teachers, the changes don’t always match what they’ve been fighting for. 

Attempts in 2019 to create charter schools and distribute vouchers for private schools helped ignite another strike. Ultimately, legislators passed an omnibus bill creating the state’s first charter schools while also giving school personnel a pay raise.

Adam Culver, an English teacher at Crossroads Academy and the vice president of the Cabell County Education Association, put a lot of importance on a candidate’s support for charter schools in deciding who to choose on a ballot.

“Those folks [who support charter schools] I definitely would not trust with my vote,” he said. 

Amber McCoy at Kellogg Elementary School. Photo by Douglas Soule

Pointing to the omnibus bill, McCoy said teachers weren’t consulted when important legislation was created. 

“Public school is the pathway out of poverty for students in this state,” she said. “It’s not charter schools. It’s not private schools. It’s the public school system. And everytime we take out of public schools is cheating a child out of a fair advantage.”

For many teachers, it was a matter of more than just policy. It was a matter of respect.

“More than anything, what really frustrates teachers is that members of the state Legislature don’t seek out professionals in the field to ask about policy changes,” Scalise said. “We look at something like charter schools and say, ‘That’s not what we believe is best for students.’”

Those boiling frustrations can be seen in reactions to Gov. Jim Justice’s color-coded map to determine reopening standards for public schools. The map has received criticism from teachers, parents and public health experts.

“I want a true representation of the infection rate in my county,” McCoy said. “I don’t want healthy people flooding and diluting the numbers so we can go travel for football this weekend.”

Scalise said teachers are disappointed with Justice’s map, and Culver said the skewing of metrics will “make the way things need to change very clear.”

“I don’t know how anyone can watch Gov. Justice at this point and feel happy about what he’s doing,” Culver said.

‘Three steps behind the starting line’

At the same time teachers are looking for political leaders to listen to their policy advice and support teacher pay raises and benefit reform, they are also looking for leadership on larger social problems that affect their schools and students.

McCoy said when she started at Kellogg Elementary School more than 15 years ago, there were four fourth-grade classes and four second-grade classes. That number has shrunk to three fourth-grade classes and two second-grade classes. 

People leaving the state seeking better opportunities, as well as West Virginia’s struggle to attract and retain quality teachers, are problems weighing on her and other teachers.

“Kids are leaving, when they graduate from high school, when they graduate from college, they’re going, they’re looking for more opportunities, and we want to stop that,” McCoy said. 

Scalise pointed to the teacher education program close by.

“We have Marshall University in our backyard here, and some of the best teachers who graduate from the education program leave the state,” he said. 

Downtown Huntington, W.Va. Photo by Douglas Soule

Then, there is West Virginia’s ongoing opioid crisis, and the toll that takes on parents, students and communities. In 2018 and years past, West Virginia had the highest opioid-involved overdose death rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Huntington, which is in both Cabell and Wayne counties, once held the moniker of “overdose capital of America.”

McCoy said every year the school has parents die from drug overdoses, and there are students who have to deal with the fallout of their parent’s substance use disorder.

“Those kids don’t come to school with the same mindset as students who live in a happy home with two parents and the rent’s always paid, the lights are always on, and dinner’s on the table,” she said. “Before we can hope to teach them anything about language arts or math, we’ve got to make sure that they feel safe and that they feel heard.”

For what some of her students have to overcome, McCoy said they should be applauded.

“They’re starting from three steps behind the starting line,” she said.

Crossroads Academy, where Culver teaches, is a school for middle school and high school students who have struggled in the typical public school environment. 

“A lot of students that we see don’t have a lot of support at home,” Culver said. “Primarily, what we see from that are families that have been torn apart by the opioid epidemic.”

Culver said if more social services were provided outside of schools and more was done to address poverty in the state, that may not be the case.

“Our education issues are tied so closely to our economic issues,” he said. “What we need to see for things to change [is a] legislature that is willing to tackle those economic problems and bring in more dollars from the companies that are taking advantage of West Virginia.”

Scalise said a problem people don’t seem to remember is children living in poverty.

“If you want to see achievement increase, one of the things we’ve got to do is try to find policies that will lift people out of poverty,” he said. 

Crisel said fostering children, seeing how they’ve lived and how they’ve had to survive, is eye-opening. She said more foster parents are needed, and criticizes any efforts, whether they be state or federal, to restrict LGBTQ+ parents from fostering.

“When you already have a limited number of people willing to be a foster parent or adoptive parent, you shouldn’t limit that even more based on your religious beliefs,” she said. “You’re only hurting the children.”

And while the striking teachers’ catchy chant was meant to remind lawmakers of their responsibility to answer to taxpayers, no chants are needed to tell her who she and other teachers work for: the children.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member and watchdog reporter. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum,...