CHARLESTON, W.Va. - At Stonewall Jackson Middle School in West Virginia, students filed past a sign that read: "Welcome back, let's roll."
It's been nine school days without class. Students returned Wednesday to Stonewall Jackson and other schools across West Virginia, a day after the state's teachers wangled a 5 per cent pay increase from their elected leaders. Their victory came after walking off the job in all 55 counties of this poor Appalachian mountain state to protest some of the lowest pay for their profession in the country.
Stonewall Jackson teacher Hannah Silverman said she was "pumped" to be back at work.
"I was like a kid on the first day of school last night, I literally couldn't sleep," Silverman said. "So, I was really excited, this is my passion. I want to be here and I've been excited since we found out yesterday."
After the long layoff, Stonewall Jackson student Angel Davis said she tried to persuade her sister that getting back to school was a good thing.
"I was happy," said Davis. "I said I want my education."
Despite losing the school days, the teachers had support from parents and students. Never mind the difficulties some parents had arranging for child care and finding activities for their idle children.
Nannette Higginbotham had mixed feelings as she said goodbye to her daughter on her first day back at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Cross Lanes.
"I love having her home, but I'm glad they're getting back to school and getting it over with," she said.
At the Village of Barboursville Elementary School, teachers traded holding picket signs for ones such as "I Missed You" to welcome students back. The teachers stood outside as their charges arrived Wednesday.
"I'm sure not only was it stressful for us as educators, (but for) parents and the students," special education teacher Jamie Robinette told WSAZ-TV. "The students want to be here. We want to be here. I'm so glad that it's over."
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has asked county superintendents to be flexible as they decide how to meet the requirement of having 180 days of school, saying students "have suffered enough." He wants families to have time for summer vacation and doesn't want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.
Some superintendents are mulling whether to cut short spring break, typically in late March, although families often have vacations already scheduled during that time.
The paralyzing walkout shut 277,000 students out of classrooms, forced their parents to scramble for child care and cast a national spotlight on government dysfunction in West Virginia. These 35,000 public school employees had gone four years without a salary increase.
From outside the state, GoFundMe campaigns bought pizza for the striking teachers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their immediate needs such as lost pay and child care.
Embracing the hashtag "55strong" in a nod to the number of counties in the state, teachers and school service personnel gathered at the Capitol daily in the thousands, waiting in long lines in the cold and rain as they remained steadfast in their demandsd.
Their euphoria after winning the fight carried over with them into the schools on Wednesday.
At Robert C. Byrd High School in Clarksburg, teachers lined up to greet students heading to their lockers.
"We were giving them high fives and chanting 'You matter to us!'" teacher Connie Buffey told The Exponent Telegram.
Associated Press writers Robert Ray in Charleston, West Virginia, and Michael Virtanen in Morgantown, West Virginia, contributed to this report.