State schools chief Molly Spearman, who for weeks has talked up the minimal risk of COVID-19 exposure in schools and encouraged districts to resume in-person instruction five days a week, on Tuesday made her most forceful plea yet for reopening schools.
Speaking alongside the governor and state health director following their announcement that South Carolina would expand vaccine eligibility to 2.7 million more residents, including teachers and school staff, Spearman directed a pointed message to district administrators and school board members.
“Every family in South Carolina must be given the opportunity to send their children to schools five days a week, face-to-face,” she told them. “This vaccine will help you keep your schools safely open by eliminating staff quarantines. I’m asking every school district in South Carolina to implement a five-day a week plan immediately.”
Spearman’s pleas come as the state hits the year mark of grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 7,600 South Carolinians and infected nearly 450,000. COVID-19 has shuttered schools, disrupted the state’s teaching workforce and underscored shortcomings of the state’s ability to serve children from different geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As of Monday, 773 of South Carolina’s 1,261 non-virtual schools, or more than 60%, were offering a full face-to-face option, according to the state Department of Education. An additional 476 schools provide blended instruction, with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, and 12 schools still remain fully virtual.
Spearman said last week she understood the fear some district administrators and board members have about returning to in-person instruction, especially in African American communities where the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact, but asserted it had reached the point where classroom instruction was vitally necessary.
Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pushed schools to reopen for in-person instruction since the beginning of the school year and repeatedly asked the General Assembly to pass a bill mandating that districts offer five-day, face-to-face instruction, said Tuesday there was no longer any justification for districts to delay reopening.
“There are no more excuses or justifications for every one of our schools not to be open five days a week for face-to-face instruction,” he said. “The consequences of not doing that are immeasurable. Our schools must be open.”
Because the state’s plan to expand vaccine eligibility to additional population groups next week does not prioritize school staff, as Spearman and the state Senate had requested, teachers will have to compete with millions of other South Carolinians for doses.
While Spearman said she wished educators had been prioritized, she added that the inability of employees to immediately schedule vaccination appointments is no excuse for districts to further delay offering face-to-face learning.
The schools chief said vaccinating educators would help districts relieve the staff shortages that occur when teachers are forced to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, but is not in itself a prerequisite for reopening.
“I’ll be very, very clear, and the CDC backs me up on this,” she said, referring to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The research shows you can open schools safely. You do not have to have vaccine in order to open schools safely.”
The Palmetto State Teachers Association, a teacher advocacy group, said it was disappointed that teachers had not been prioritized within Phase 1b, as it said 33 states, including both North Carolina and Georgia, had done.
The group criticized the governor, who, along with DHEC, has opposed the prioritization of teachers in favor of seniors, whom they argue are more vulnerable to severe coronavirus complications.
“The Governor has pushed for five day, face-to-face instruction since July 2020. This is a worthy goal, but to fully achieve the goal of rich, daily face-to-face instructional options for all students, our state must deploy all available resources and tools in the fight against COVID-19,” the PSTA said in a statement. “Prioritizing educators would require less than our state’s current vaccine allotment for a single week but would pay benefits for students for the remainder of the school year. PSTA is disappointed that our state has missed this opportunity to prioritize education.”
In recent weeks, the Department of Education has solicited and received vaccination plans from every school district in the state that administrators will now begin to implement.
Each district has identified a vaccine provider and knows where doses will be administered and who will administer them, said Spearman, who encouraged districts to enact the plans quickly.
Districts also know which employees want a shot in the arm, after having polled their interest last month in anticipation of receiving vaccine eligibility.
For that reason, districts will coordinate vaccinations for their staff and are well positioned to get a large number of teachers and school staff inoculated quickly and efficiently, even though they may not technically be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine, Spearman said.
Many districts are working with local health care providers to set up teacher-specific vaccination clinics on school grounds to speed up the process, McMaster said.
Spearman encouraged school staff to get vaccinated as soon as they’re able, and called on teachers and administrators to set an example for their surrounding communities that may be skeptical about getting a shot in the arm.
“Everybody loves their principals and their teachers, and they trust them,” the schools chief said. “So when vaccines are given, they can be the great example that we’re needing.”