MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Many people say teachers are our modern day heroes.
Educators and staff members across South Carolina have been switching gears, finding new ways to educate children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the education community has done a remarkable job in an extremely difficult environment right now,” said Sherri East, president of the South Carolina Education Association. “That goes down to the bus driver, cafeteria worker, teacher’s aide, secretaries, principals, superintendents, school boards, everybody has been pulled upon for this pandemic.”
But some staff members say more support is needed in 2021 to make sure the learning environment is even safer for all workers, particularly those concerned about their health during the recent COVID-19 spike.
East says there are ways state and school leaders can help those employees feel a bit more comfort in the weeks to come by providing more clarity about how workers can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
South Carolina is currently in Phase 1-A of the vaccine distribution plan, which includes workers at high-risk for catching COVID-19. School workers are expected to be put into Phase 1-B.
Because this phase in next line, East says a plan of action should be in place for how teachers and staff workers will receive the dosages. According to the teachers she’s spoken with, they want more information soon about how they can receive the vaccine.
“We’ve seen [health leaders] talk about the plan and who’s going to get it and who’s first,” East said. “But where does the teacher go to make that happen? Are you suppose to go to the doctor’s office? Are you suppose to go to the health department? Where and when and how is that happening?”
WMBF News reached out to the South Carolina Department of Education and South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control for more details about how school workers will receive the vaccine. But those specific details weren’t provided.
East says some teachers are excited about eventually getting the vaccine, while others she says are a bit more hesitant towards taking the dosage.
“It’s kind of all over the board,” East said. “I’ve heard from teachers that want to be first in line, [and] definitely want to get [the] vaccine. I’ve also heard from teachers too that say, ‘I’d almost like to catch COVID, recover and be done because I’m tired of waiting to catch it.’”
East says in addition to getting the vaccination distribution questions answered, school leaders must focus on other areas that would enable some staff members to feel even more comfortable on the school grounds.
She says school leaders need to follow the COVID-19 data in 2021 to ensure the learning environment for students and staff matches the most up-to-date current virus threat level.
East added that she spoke with teachers that had a ‘COVID Christmas break,’ meaning the virus was on their minds during the holiday due to feelings of anxiety about returning to classrooms after the break.
East fully supports school districts like Horry County Schools and Georgetown County that are implementing a two-week virtual learning environment starting Jan. 4 due to staff workers who may have to quarantine due to COVID exposure.
She says that quarantine period is to the staff and families benefit because it will ensure that teachers and students are healthy. She further stated all school districts should focus more on safety instead of getting back to “normal,” which some school leaders consider to be five-days of face-to-face learning.
“[It’s] a little bit alarming, ”East said. “Follow the numbers, let’s get the numbers down to a manageable [place], then lets talk about how we return safely to school. At what point do you put the safety of your staff and people over the push to get back to normal right now.”
Throughout the semester, WMBF News has heard from parents, sharing their input about both the virtual and the brick-and-mortar program for Horry County students.
Some parents voiced their approval with the program, while others shared frustrations about the learning environment. Most recently, a parent shared how the virtual learning program has been a big struggle for her 7-year-old son, who she says was withdrawn from the virtual program.
East says the majority of the struggles they’re hearing about right now with the virtual learning program is on the elementary school level. She further stated young kids typically flourish better in face-to-face learning environments.
She added that she understands the dilemma some families are facing now about not wanting to send their kids to school because of a potential virus threat and choosing virtual as the safest option. In order for the 2021 school year to go a bit smoother for some of those families, she says state leaders must focus more on ways to lower the class sizes.
“We’ve overloaded our virtual teaches,” East said. “They have too many students. In Rock Hill, I know one woman who has over 30 students on Zoom. That’s not fair, to the students or to her to have that many students on virtual. The number one thing [a parent can do] to get that attention, that one-on-one help is to lower the ratio of student to teacher, that way [the teacher] could have more time to interact.”
East added the underlying issue in the virtual environment right now is staffing.
“We started the school year with 700 vacancies [in the South Carolina schools],” East said. “So our class sizes are outrageous, especially in virtual.”
She says what’s alarming to the organization is how South Carolina educators are being spread thin due to COVID cases possibly linked to parents sending their kids to schools.
“Parents are sending their kids to school with COVID,” East said. “And they know they have it and are still sending their kids to school. It’s creating more COVID cases and there’s so many people out right now, we don’t have the staff to cover the classes. We already had a substitute shortage going into COVID, and now we have a bigger one.”
East says everyone is doing all they can to make the learning environment work.
“I want [state and school leaders] to realize, you’ve asked teachers to do more, [yet] you haven’t taken anything off the plate,” she said. “You haven’t taken evaluations off the plate, you haven’t taken testing off the plate yet, you’ve just added COVID to their plate. So we really need to give some patience and understanding to everybody involved in educating a child right now.”
She says that includes parents.
“We’ve asked [parents] to disrupt [their] schedules and life to work with us and do things different,” East said. “Give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far. We need to really look at that and figure out how we can all work together instead of fighting each other on how to make this work. I think the education community has done a remarkable job in an extremely difficult time right now.”
East says the school system is in need of additional support systems such as substitutes and bus drivers. She’s encouraging people to give back to their community, stating schools are one of the best places to start.