COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina education leaders are reacting to new CDC guidance released Friday that suggests in-person learning can resume safely with mask wearing, social distancing, contact tracing and cleaning procedures in place.
Vaccination of teachers is not a key prerequisite for reopening schools, but an additional layer of protection, according to the report.
But the Palmetto State Teachers Association (PSTA) and South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) say teachers getting the vaccine is not just about their safety -- it’s also about staffing.
Many districts have had teachers out on quarantine and can’t find enough substitutes, so classes are being merged or moved to auditoriums.
“As long as educators aren’t vaccinated, then we will continue to have inconsistent and really insufficient staffing in our schools,” said Patrick Kelly, PSTA director of governmental affairs.
Kelly says the CDC previously noted that once teachers are fully inoculated against the virus, they will no longer have to quarantine as close contacts, which could allow schools to successfully reopen five days a week.
While the long-awaited guidance included many mitigation strategies that have already been backed by the CDC, the agency is now suggesting them more forcefully, saying if there are more than 50 new cases per 100,000 citizens, 6-feet of social distancing shouldn’t just be encouraged, it should be mandatory.
“That’s going to be really hard for our schools to do, especially if we’re talking about five-days-a-week instruction because we simply don’t have the square footage,” Kelly explained.
Sherry East, president of the SCEA, also noted that 6-feet of social distancing isn’t possible for many South Carolina schools. She says while most districts are offering both in-person and virtual learning options, only around 25% of parents are opting to keep their children online.
“Some of our classrooms have 30 students in them,” said East. “There is no social distancing. Desks are bumper to bumper in there.”
The guidance also creates guidelines for different levels of community spread, similar to the accelerateED task force guidance that State Superintendent of Education, Molly Spearman, rescinded nearly two weeks ago.
The CDC says when there are more than 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 citizens in a community, a return to full in-person learning is not recommended.
“There’s not a single district in South Carolina that’s outside of their high zone, or their red zone, right now,” Kelly explained. “Richland County was over 500 cases per 100,000 citizens last week. That’s literally five times above the CDC’s recommendation for middle and high school students to be attending school for even part of a day, and for elementary schools to be attending anything close to five days a week.”
The CDC guidance does note that even if there is high community transmission, schools currently offering in-person learning can continue if mitigation measures are strictly followed.
Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools is directly connected to slowing transmission in the community, according to CDC, which also notes schools should be the last settings to close and first to reopen when they can do so safely.
“We’ve actually pretty much done that in reverse in South Carolina,” said Kelly, who explains restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity in the Palmetto State, which goes against CDC recommendations for social distancing in public settings.
“What’s fair for schools should be fair for businesses, or do you let the business folks make up their own minds,” said East. “It’s up to you if you want to take your chance to go in a restaurant right now, but it’s not up to teachers if we can go to work or not.”
The CDC also notes middle and high school settings are more likely to see more virus transmission than elementary schools, but the study overall says based on the current data available, “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.”