Public schools across West Virginia remained empty for a fourth school day Tuesday —but there's relief in sight for the 20,000 teachers and almost 10,000 support staff.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice says striking teachers will return to the classroom on Thursday, and he's offering teachers and school service personnel a 5% pay raise in the first year.
Justice made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday after emerging from a meeting with union leaders for teachers in all 55 counties.
“We need our kids back in school. We need our teachers back in school,” Justice said.
Teachers will remain out of class on Wednesday in part because some counties had already called off school, he said, referring to it as a “cooling off day.”
The teachers are represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association. Also taking part in the strike are members of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which includes support staff.
“We are taking this deal in good faith at this point,” said WVEA President Dale Lee, although he warned that teachers could be called to strike again if progress is not made.
School personnel have been pressing for higher pay and relief from onerous health care costs.
Justice had previously signed off on across-the-board pay raises of $808 per teacher next year and $404 in each of the following two years. But Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said the pay hikes and a one-year freeze in health care premiums wasn't enough.
Campbell said earlier in the day that strikers were not going back to their classrooms until a long-term solution is found to the problem of low pay and thinning benefits.
“Our issues are clear. Our commitment to finding a solution has been consistent," she said. "We stand together for our students, our communities and our state."
Kevin Green, 28, teaches social studies at River View High School in Bradshaw. He sits on a committee that reviews candidates for teaching positions at the school. Often there are no candidates, he said.
"The benefits are terrible and the pay is atrocious," Green told USA TODAY. "There is no incentive to stay except that this is home. But sometimes that just isn't enough."
The teachers say they are sensitive to the impact on the more than 275,000 public school students. Many of those kids come from low-income families and rely on subsidized breakfast and lunch for basic nutrition.
AFT-West Virginia spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said teachers worked with local community groups, churches and food pantries to provide bags of food they sent home with students before the strike. Some teachers are continuing the effort during the strike.
She said teachers in Marion County were delivering food packages to families door-to-door.
"They are pooling resources, sometimes with their own money, and putting together packets of soup, mac and cheese, food cups," Wood told USA TODAY.
Teacher pay depends on degree levels, experience and other factors. The National Education Association ranked West Virginia 48th among states in teacher pay in 2016, with an average of $45,622.
More than 700 teaching positions across the state remain unfilled due to low pay and eroding benefits. A state-instituted, one-year freeze on escalating health care premiums will help but isn't enough, Wood said.
"Putting a one-year Band-Aid on the issue won't solve the problem. We need a long-term solution," she said. Teachers also are concerned about one legislative proposal that would make it more difficult to collect dues through payroll deductions and another that would chip away at seniority rights, she added.
"Allowing principals to arbitrarily decide who to lay off could open the door to nepotism and favoritism," Wood said.
She said the teachers are "carrying the water" for state police officers and other state workers struggling with the same issues of low pay and rising health care costs.
Green is resolute in his demands — but has no regrets.
"Teaching has been my passion since I was in first grade," he said. "And it still is."