COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - On Tuesday, legislators discussed two bills that would move teachers and school staff into Phase 1A of the vaccine rollout.
Last week the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would move teachers and staff up to receive the vaccine. The House introduced a similar bill.
“My initial reaction was disappointment that the Governor didn’t consider this in the beginning,” House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford said ahead of the committee meeting. “There’s so many people’s lives that hinge on teachers getting these vaccines, and of course teachers need to be moved up. At this point, if we don’t, we can’t safely start schools. A lot of school districts simply won’t do it, so we have to move teachers up in order to make sure kids get back into classrooms.”
Both resolutions now sit with the House of Representatives Healthcare Subcommittee, who heard from those on both sides of the debate, with over 50 people testifying.
“I think we do need to have urgent action to get our students back to something close to normal,” Patrick Kelly, the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association Director of Governmental Affairs, said. “Vaccine access provides the most important and powerful tool to make that possible.”
Many teachers stressed to the committee that the vaccine is the key to getting kids back into the classroom five days a week. They said staffing remains a critical issue for running schools right now, and the vaccine would eradicate the issue of teachers needing to quarantine.
Other groups like the AARP thanked Governor McMaster for following the evidence that those over 65+ are at the greatest risk of dying and need the vaccine first.
“81% of all COVID deaths in this state were people 65 and older,” Teresa Arnold, the AARP SC State Director, said to the committee.
When asked about moving teachers up, Governor McMaster said vaccine needs to go to the elderly first before opening it up to any other groups, but that he wants schools open and offering in-person learning five days a week.
“We will not put a younger, healthier person ahead of an older person who may die in this state,” McMaster remarked.
Legislators remarked that it’s a tough issue trying to decide who should go should go first in line because of the limited vaccine supply.
“I just don’t follow that if there is still a problem with the supply, moving anyone to the front of the line be they Marines, police officers, first responders-- anyone who gets moved to the front of the line, how are they not getting put in front of a senior?” Rutherford asked during the meeting.
As far as the timeline for when these bills might mean shots in arms for teachers if one of the bills passes, Representative Rutherford who sits on the Healthcare Subcommittee said it’s going to be weeks until either bill becomes law.
The House’s resolution to move teachers to Phase 1A is still in the committee phase, where it was debated today. It will be debated before the Ways and Means committee, with potential amendments being made before it will go to the full house for a vote. It will then be sent to the Senate for a vote as well.
The Senate resolution is further along, with it already passing the Senate unanimously. On Tuesday, it was debated before the subcommittee before it goes to the house for a final vote.
“This is a much slower process,” Rutherford said. “But it’s a process that nonetheless because the Governor didn’t enact this when he first had the opportunity, now the House and Senate have to look to fix it.”
Both bills include a timeline for schools returning to in-person learning, saying that schools would need to return in person within 30 days after teachers are vaccinated. However, amendments could be made to these bills during the on-going committee process.
Teacher groups stressed that time is of the essence for getting teachers vaccinated as the end of the school year approaches, and argued that by the time the bill passes supply issues might not be a problem with other vaccines like the Johnson and Johnson vaccine possibly getting FDA Emergency Use Authorization by the end of the month.
Other groups such as the SCDOT and the SCDMV testified before the committee as well, asking the committee to move other groups of employees into earlier phases of the vaccine roll-out.