By Greg Jordan

Barring any weather delays or closures, West Virginia's students will be returning to school today after a two-day statewide teachers strike ended when the West Virginia House decided not to reconsider the state Senate's omnibus education bill.

School systems in Mercer, McDowell and Monroe Counties were closed along with other schools across the state after teachers unions announced Monday evening that a strike was underway. In Mercer County, teachers demonstrated Tuesday along Stafford Drive in Princeton and again Wednesday at Mercer Street near the Princeton Post Office. Teachers started their strike to protest Senate Bill 451, which included provisions for charter schools and education savings accounts. The legislation was tabled Tuesday, but local teachers worry that it could be revived.

Mercer County Education Association President Nicole McCormick stood in the cold and rain with her fellow teachers near the Princeton Post Office. She said teachers were afraid that charter schools and education savings accounts could be reintroduced in the Legislature. This is why picketing continued Wednesday.

McCormick confirmed Wednesday night after the AFT-West Virginia and the American Federation of Teachers held a press conference in Charleston that schools would reopen today unless there were closings due to inclement weather.

"State leadership asked everyone to go back," McCormick said. "We're hoping that's it, that there will be no more destructive legislation introduced."

Teachers hope legislators will pass bills for smaller class sizes, more mental health professionals and librarians in schools, and protection for the arts. Educators also hope the Legislature will address problems with PEIA insurance and not take funding from "the working class and the poor" to do so, she said during Wednesday's demonstration.

Across the street, teachers holding up signs said the public had been very supportive of their efforts.

"I feel the support has been fine today, especially considering the weather," third grade teacher Angela Neal of Mercer School said.

"A lot of honks, a lot of waves," fifth grade teacher Melanie Meachum of Straley Elementary added. "One lady even climbed out of her car."

The strike left working parents of younger students looking for child care options while it continued. In Bluefield, the city Parks and Recreation Department offered an alternative. Children were playing Wednesday at the Bluefield Auditorium along Stadium Drive.

"We have a regular after school program," Youth Development Director Shannon Lowe said. "When Mercer County is out of school, we offer an all-day camp. We feed the kids breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack."

Different organizations including the Bluefield Police Department, Community Connections and Child Protect provide different activities for the children, Lowe said.

"So during the strike we want to get the word out to parents that we're open 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.," she stated. "We're a licensed day care facility for ages 5 to 13. Our normal daily fee is $30, but we also accept Mountain Heart. If you don't qualify for that, we have a sliding scale and we'll work with parents. We just don't want anybody not to come because of price."

The Parks and Recreation Department has partnered in the past with agencies wanting to offer services to the children, Lowe said.

As of Wednesday, the program was hosting 10 extra children, Lowe stated. The after school program normally has about 30 kids every day. Parents can register their children on-site in the morning. The program is open when schools are closed for snow days and holidays, and there is the after school program and a summer camp.

"We're open year round," Lowe said. "We're always here."

(c)2019 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)