Top SC education advocacy groups all oppose governor’s push to reopen schools

Updated: Jul. 15, 2020 at 11:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Shortly after Gov. Henry Mcmaster urged schools to reopen five days a week, educators voiced their concerns again regarding the decision to physically bring children back into classrooms in September.

The Palmetto State Teachers Association, SC for Ed, the South Carolina Education Association, the South Carolina School Boards Association, and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators each issued statements following the governor’s announcement Wednesday morning.

“In the midst of a generational crisis, the state of South Carolina desperately needs sound and steady leadership that is focused on ensuring the health and well-being of all South Carolinians,” the PSTA said in their statement. “The Palmetto State Teachers Association categorically opposes Governor McMaster’s push for all school districts in South Carolina to operate in-person instruction, five days a week, without regard for the status of the coronavirus pandemic when schools are scheduled to resume.

The PSTA went on to say that the decision “would needlessly jeopardize the health and safety of our state’s 800,000 students and more than 50,000 teachers.”

SC for Ed also opposed the governor’s decision. Last week, the organization announced the results of a survey where 42% of school staff members were listed at heightened risk of being infected by COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions. On Wednesday, SC for Ed stood firm in their decision releasing a statement prior to McMaster’s announcement reopening of schools during the pandemic.

“As an organization, we are saddened, disappointed, and appalled by today’s careless and dangerous statements on the part of Governor McMaster,” SC for Ed said in its statement. “Since our inception, it has been our goal to protect the students and educators of South Carolina. After hearing today’s press conference, in which the governor and others said face-to-face instruction should be mandated as an option for all students in the state, we cannot in good conscience remain idle in our positions and actions.”

Likewise, the S.C. Education Associaton joined the voices disagreeing with Gov. McMaster. Sherry East, the president of SCEA who also served on the AccelerateED task force, said Wednesday’s decision by the governor “clouded the immense challenge of reopening South Carolina’s schools safely and without compromising a high-quality learning environment.

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“The issue has never been about returning to school,” said East. “Our teachers are eager to get back to their classrooms. We know in-person instruction works best. But we can’t teach – nor can children learn -- in an unsafe environment, and COVID-19 is not just unsafe, it’s deadly. We simply can’t deny that South Carolina’s global lead in per capita spread has caused widespread anxiety.”

Beth Phibbs, the executive director for the South Carolina Association of School Administrators called the children of South Carolina the state’s “most precious resource” and called for the members of the association to continue to follow all the recommendations by health agencies at all levels to safely open schools.

“As professionals, we know firsthand the important role our public schools play in the educational, emotional, and physical wellbeing of our children,” Phibbs said. “However, our concern for the health and safety of our students and staff is — and will always be — our first and foremost priority.”

Last but not least, S.C. School Board Association President Chuck Saylors said “the decision of when and how to open schools is best made at the local level.”

“As the stewards of public schools, who are accountable to the citizens in their communities, school board members, with their superintendents, are carefully weighing health and safety information and guidance at the state and federal level, with a focus on disease activity ratings in their local counties, to make the best decision for the students and families in their communities.

You can read each statement in the document below.

The state's top education advocacy groups are all against the governor's push to reopen schools, and so are some teachers, who explain they could have to make a choice between their health and the career they love.

Pete Stone is the teacher of the year in Chester County and says he and his wife Katharine will likely be making the decision not to return to teaching next year because Katharine is pregnant, and they don’t feel returning to the classroom is safe for their growing family. “We’re going to have to put safety and our family first, and if the governor keeps pushing to go back to face to face, we’re both just going to have to leave and try to have enough income to get through this next year,” Stone explained.

Some teachers and education leaders say they don’t understand why the state convened the accelerateED task force for compiling recommendations from public health experts if the governor was going to push for schools to reopen regardless of disease activity. “The governor is just saying, alright. it’s going to be five days, this is what I’m saying we need to do. It doesn’t matter that the accelerateED task force spent hours coming up with what’s best for the students and teachers of our state,” said Kathy Maness, the executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Another big concern among teachers is how classrooms will be able to be kept clean when often schools run short on supplies and can’t retain custodial staff. “Because we pay our custodial staff so little for the important jobs that they do, we had trouble recruiting and retaining people throughout the year. Multiple times I came back to my classroom with dried urine on the floor, bloodstains in the bathroom floor, or feces on the floor, and it was my responsibility to clean that up before my kids got to class that morning. In these situations, how are we going to make sure this doesn’t happen?,” asked SC for Ed member Chris Hass.

Some teachers say they are also concerned because they say there doesn’t seem to be a clear policy in place for what should happen if a teacher or student tests positive for the virus. There’s also a concern surrounding a shortage of substitute teachers.

Ultimately, teachers and education groups want each district to be able to decide when it’s safe to return to school. “The local districts following the recommendations from DHEC and following the recommendations from accelerateED are best equipped to decide when that moment occurs,” said Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Where most teachers and education organizations do seem to agree with the governor is his decision to push school start dates until after Labor Day. They believe this gives the state more time to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

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