COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - COVID-19 disease activity in South Carolina is now considered high in all but five counties.
Two Midlands school districts, Orangeburg and Sumter, are returning to full virtual learning models through the winter break, citing staffing challenges because of teachers out on quarantine.
Despite health officials calling last week the worst in terms of new cases since the pandemic began, Gov. Henry McMaster called on all districts to move or stay in five days a week face to face instruction during a news conference Wednesday.
“These children not being in school will have enormous unintended consequences,” McMaster explained. “People all over our state are going back to work. We have a 4.2 percent unemployment rate. People are working. There’s no reason for these schools not to be open.”
McMaster continued by saying parents should not have to choose between their jobs and their children. He’s provided districts with millions of dollars worth of PPE, and he recently offered rapid testing to all South Carolina school districts.
“The consequences of these children, some of whom were marginal in their learning to begin with, the consequences are going to be enormous, and we cannot afford that,” said McMaster.
The state’s teacher organizations, like Palmetto State Teachers Association, South Carolina Education Association, and SC for Ed, push back on the governor’s notion that returning to school is safe.
They are urging all districts to immediately reevaluate their current learning models.
“They have so many people out that they are having trouble covering at one school,” said Sherry East with the SCEA. “We heard all the administrative team was out on quarantine at another, so that school needs to shut down. Let’s air on the side of safety right now because the vaccine is right around the corner.”
These organizations are also asking state leaders who continue to place a high priority on face-to-face instruction, to partner that push with actions, like a universal mask mandate.
“Schools are only as safe in a public health crisis as the communities around them,” explained PSTA governmental affairs director, Patrick Kelly. “If we’re going to advocate for five days a week face-to-face, which is a good thing, then we need to take the hard steps of leadership to slow the spread of COVID-19 in this state through wearing a mask and through asking people to follow the recommendations of our public health officials.”
McMaster has said repeatedly that he will not enact a statewide mask ordinance, calling it impossible to enforce.
This push from some teachers to reevaluate and return to virtual learning also comes at a time when several teachers are facing one-year license suspensions for resigning due to COVID-19 concerns.
The state can suspend a teacher’s license for leaving in the middle of the year, but teachers can normally reach out to their district and get an approved leave of absence or a dismissal. The SCEA says they’ve heard from teachers who have asked their districts to leave but have not gotten approval because their districts are facing staffing shortages already.
Those who still choose to leave could have a hearing scheduled before the Department of Education to discuss having their license revoked.
PSTA and SCEA both testified in front of the Department of Education Tuesday, asking them not to revoke or suspend teachers’ licenses who left because of the pandemic. They also wrote letters saying the same thing back in July.