In the union strongholds of Southwest PA and WV, labor struggles for health benefits echo in teacher union vaccination efforts

by Laura Harbert Allen

Robert Mitchell gets up while it’s still dark.

Since the pandemic began last March, Mitchell, who has taught in the Pittsburgh city school system for 26 years, rises early to make sure his digital classroom is set up for the day. 

Between lesson planning – which includes some off-screen Spanish exercises for his middle-school students at Pittsburgh Classical Academy – Mitchell allows more time than he did before the pandemic for stretch breaks and check-ins with his students. “I want to know how they are doing,” he said. 

Across the state line (well, a couple if you’re driving), Jessica Salfia teaches six English and creative writing classes at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, West Virginia. Unlike Pittsburgh Public Schools – which has been completely online for the past year – West Virginia teachers had to consult a county-by-county color-coded map of the state each week to determine whether or not they would be teaching 100% online or in a hybrid format that included limited in-person instruction. 

The lack of consistency made for a tough year as teachers had to create lesson plans for in-person and online classrooms simultaneously, something Salfia called a “bricks or clicks” system.

“It’s been an enormous source of stress,” she said. 

Between them, Mitchell and Salfia have 43 years of teaching experience. Both say the past year has been the hardest they have ever worked in their careers as teachers. 

Something else they have in common: Mitchell and Salfia come from regions with rich labor histories that date back more than a century. Unions for workers in the steel and coal industries fought for healthcare benefits and better job conditions for those workers. 

Robert Mitchell has taught in the Pittsburgh public school system for 26 years, but COVID has drastically changed what his school day looks like. Mitchell has created a digital workspace in his home where he teaches his middle school students Spanish. (Photo by Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia)

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In the union strongholds of Southwest PA and WV, labor struggles for health benefits echo in teacher union vaccination efforts

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