COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Gov. Henry McMaster and State Superintendent Molly Spearman repeatedly claimed Thursday morning that all South Carolina schools should be operating face-to-face because they are not at-risk environments.
Neither the governor nor the state superintendent support teachers getting vaccinated before returning to face-to-face learning.
“We don’t want to put a single younger healthy person in front of an older person who may die if they don’t get that vaccine,” said McMaster.
During Thursday’s news conference, McMaster and Spearman discussed the plan for distributing COVID-19 vaccines to teachers “once they are eligible.”
However, they said the State Department of Education is not developing a plan, and school districts need to come up with their own plan before vaccines are made available for teachers and staff. They are also asking districts not offering five days a week face-to-face learning to submit a plan for that as well.
“We cannot begin vaccinating our teachers without both of these plans, and the supplies so we must act quickly on those plans,” said McMaster.
The governor said, as of now, 25 of the state’s 79 districts do not have plans in place, while 37 districts have a plan and 19 others have begun talks with their local health care providers.
“That just came out of the blue for districts today it seems like,” said South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East. “It’s the first time I’ve heard that districts needed to have a plan to get on this vaccine list.”
Spearman said the department does stand ready to help districts “in any way.” She notes that some school districts, like Lexington One, are training school nurses for vaccinations. She says that Lexington One and some larger districts have even offered for their nurses to help other districts that don’t have the staffing.
McMaster said a recent survey indicates about 58% of the state’s teachers want the vaccine. That would be about 32,000 people.
As it stands, South Carolina remains in phase 1a of its vaccine rollout. Educators are in phase 1b, which the Department of Health and Environmental Control estimates they will get to in “early spring.”
One day ago, the governor and DHEC announced people who are 65 and older, who were originally scheduled to get vaccinated after teachers and other essential workers (like grocery store workers, manufacturing workers, etc...), were moved up in the state’s vaccine plan.
Those 65 and older can begin to schedule vaccine appointments Monday, Feb. 8. Read more about that by clicking or tapping here.
McMaster said elderly people are the most at-risk for death from COVID-19, calling it a “moral imperative” to vaccinate those 65 and older.
Teacher advocacy groups responded to the announcement by saying they believe those 65 and up should get vaccinated as soon as possible, but that teachers also need access so schools can return to face-to-face instruction.
“While those individuals are at higher risk if they contract the virus, they are at lower risk of coming into contact with the virus than a teacher that’s being asked to go into a classroom five days a week with 20 to 25 little people,” explained Palmetto State Teachers Association Director of Governmental Affairs Patrick Kelly.
The governor said there’s not enough vaccine supply to accommodate teachers and people 65 and older.
Spearman and McMaster have also repeatedly cited several studies saying schools are safe now, even if teachers are not vaccinated.
“The schools are not an at-risk environment, that has been demonstrated by the facts,” the governor said. “There’s less spread (in schools) than virtually anywhere else. So it is not putting anyone in an unsafe environment to go to school. In fact, they’re probably safer there than anywhere else.”
Thursday, Spearman also rescinded accelerateSC guidance that suggested school districts should not return to face-to-face instruction if community spread was high.
“Schools are not the super spreaders they were once feared to be,” said Spearman.
She said schools can operate safely regardless of high community spread and she wants every district to present her with a plan for face-to-face learning.
When asked about concerns from teacher advocacy groups, Spearman reiterated “the data shows we can go back safely.”
“School districts owe it (to go back face-to-face),” she said. “The state has put in over $100 million in PPE to make schools safe -- plexiglass, everything they’ve asked for, we have given them. And I think those teachers who signed those contracts owe a responsibility to come to work and do what they should.”
She added: “I understand there’s some with underlying conditions and districts need to work with them if they have to teach virtually.”
While schools may be safe with plexiglass and masks, educators note teachers can still be exposed to COVID-19 in their communities.
“The more teachers that are out, the more risky it becomes for other teachers, staff, and students,” Kelly explained. “Vaccine access alleviates that staffing concern that is driving up risk in schools higher than it needs to be.”
While all South Carolina seniors will have access to the vaccine on Monday, some say they’re willing to give up their shots to help safely reopen our schools.