‘I have no faith in the system that we’ll be protected’: W.Va. teachers express frustration with board of ed over reopening plans

Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 7:01 PM EDT
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BERKELEY COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - Berkeley County West Virginia teachers returned to work Monday with their colleagues. 

But, an event held last week with more than 100 new teachers has them on edge. 

"It feels a lot like Russian Roulette to me," said Jeanie Milito, a Spring Mills High School English teacher. 

Health officials sent a letter to everyone who attended a new teacher orientation notifying them that someone at the meeting tested positive for COVID-19. The superintendent separately said the employee was at the event for about 30 minutes. 

Pictures of the meeting posted and later deleted on Facebook show large groups of people sitting close together, some without masks. In a statement, the school said the only time people didn't wear masks was when they were eating or presenting. 

Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy released a statement describing the timeline around the incident: 

“An employee reported to Berkeley County Schools’ administration that they received notification of an exposure to a person testing positive for Covid-19. The employee learned this early Thursday morning shortly after arriving at orientation. 

"Upon learning, the employee immediately left the orientation. It is estimated that their attendance at the event was approximately 30 minutes after arrival for the Thursday morning session. 

"The employee was also present on Wednesday at a small group training held at 401 S. Queen St., and those employees in that gathering received a health department notification also. It was learned on Friday that this employee tested positive for Covid-19."

Also concerning to teachers, the health department's letter doesn't tell attendees to quarantine; It only recommends self-monitoring for symptoms. 

That's despite the Berkeley County Schools guidelines recommending anyone quarantine for 14 days who had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 

"What the BOE is saying and how they're actually implementing their plan are two different things. It makes their reopening plan seem meaningless and foolhardy," Milito said.

Another teacher who spoke with 5 News said she's heard from concerned new employees who attended the orientation, including a parent of one new teacher. 

"Her daughter had texted her during the new teacher orientation and said, 'Mom, I'm scared. I'm immunocompromised. They're not socially distancing and we're supposed to eat buffet-style food.' She was scared," said Colleen Wolfe, a reading and language arts teacher at Martinsburg North Middle School.

Teachers said along with the buffet-style breakfast served at the event, people moved around the room for various ice breaker activities, which could make contact tracing difficult. 

"They didn't know where that person was in relationship to where everyone else was," Wolfe said. "They did icebreakers that had them moving around the room. They can't accurately pinpoint who this positive person came in contact with."

Superintendent Murphy's statement continued to say he takes responsibility to lead the district and "model the practices and behaviors that keep all of us safe."

"Consequently, we will continue looking very closely at our current practices under the scope of the BMCBH, updating staff about how we operate, and continue working very closely with our school leaders," he continued. "On behalf of Berkeley County Schools, I am truly sorry this happened, and we will make every effort with our practices to avoid situations like this in the future. I appreciate being able to provide you with more of the background and facts surrounding this circumstance, within the bounds of confidentiality."

But more will have to be done to win back the trust of some teachers, says Jessica Washburn, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School. 

She said teachers say they know of some of their coworkers who called in sick on their first day back out of caution. 

“I have no faith in the system that we’ll be protected. I have faith that they’ll send me a letter that says, ‘Oh, hey, by the way, one of your 150 kids tested positive. Watch out and make sure you don’t have symptoms, and if you have symptoms, go to your doctor.” 

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