COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman is calling on Gov. Henry McMaster and the Department of Health and Environmental Control to move teachers to the top of phase 1b for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Teachers are currently a part of that vaccine phase, but Spearman wants them prioritized among the group so they receive the vaccine before anyone else in phase 1b.
Her argument is if teachers can get vaccinated, schools can open five days a week in-person, allowing parents to return to work.
“I think our situation, with the way school teachers having the vaccine impacts all families in South Carolina, that we should be moved up to a number one priority within that group 1b,” Spearman explained.
Right now, those in Phase 1b are “frontline essential workers,” including firefighters, USPS workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, law enforcement, corrections officers, manufacturing workers, food and ag workers and education staff -- which includes teachers, school staff and day care workers. Click or tap here for the full list of who is included in all vaccine phases.
Spearman, who is still in isolation for having COVID-19 herself, says she talked to district superintendents across the state last week and at least four districts are interested in being vaccine providers.
“We are looking for the most efficient way to get the vaccine into teachers’ arms just as soon as possible,” said Spearman. “Look at Lexington One School District, for instance, they have 41 nurses at least on their staff who could be implemented to put vaccines into teachers’ arms, so there is a lot of assistance out in the school districts. We have offered our help to DHEC, and we hope that very soon we will have an active model rolling out.”
Spearman acknowledged school nurses are facing contact tracing challenges, but she believes the vaccine should be the top priority.
“I believe right now, the most important thing to do is to get those vaccines in people’s arms,” she explained. “The contact tracing is important, and the testing is important, but we’ve got to protect our nurses and the senior staff, so they can get back to work.”
Despite every county in our state experiencing high virus spread, Spearman maintains her belief that every school needs to offer a five day a week in-person option, but she says she does support districts who must briefly return to virtual learning because of staffing challenges.
Tuesday, Chapin High School in Lexington-Richland School District 5 had to return to distanced learning for the day because of a high number of cases and close contacts.
“I know many teachers are calling for virtual-only,” said Spearman. “I don’t agree with that. That shouldn’t be just a blanket plan. I still stand by that we should do everything we possibly can to offer two options, a virtual option to our families, and a face-to-face option. I am working to get the vaccine just as soon as possible, and I think that’s the way we have to go.”
But some teachers believe with case numbers and hospitalizations so high, districts should wait to return to in-person learning at least until they can receive a vaccine.
“If the vaccine is so close, if we could be seeing it early next month even if we’re moving us up to 1b, I just wonder why we don’t try to vaccinate teachers more, especially in those areas with tremendously high spread like the Upstate, or high spread like the Midlands, it seems like we would do that first before trying to go back face to face,” said Richland Two teacher and SC for Ed board member, Steve Nuzum.
While Nuzum appreciates Spearman’s request to move teachers to the top of phase 1b, he says he also has trouble believing that will actually happen.
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“We’ve been told so many things that have turned out to not be true that I kind of have to believe it when I see,” Nuzum explained. “I think she’s saying the right thing, but until there’s action from the governor or DHEC or some other agency, it’s really not within her power to make that call.”
WIS reached out to both DHEC and the governor’s office to get their response to Spearman’s request that teachers be moved to the top of phase 1b.
DHEC says the state’s Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC) has recommended teachers as part of phase 1b.
“The VAC and South Carolina’s public health officials understand how essential our state’s educators are to our children and to bringing a state of normalcy back into the classroom,” wrote DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick. “The health and wellbeing of our teachers, aides, and daycare workers is a critical component of Phase 1b guidance.”
WIS has not yet heard back from the governor’s office.
Some teachers have also expressed concern for not having paid sick leave or time off if they get the virus or have to quarantine as a close contact. Spearman said there is federal funding available that can be used to pay teachers, and she’s encouraging districts to use it.
She also announced the State Department of Education’s top legislative priorities for the next two years Tuesday.
Spearman says her top priority is safety and says she wants to make sure there is funding available for every South Carolina school to have a nurse and resource officer. She also wants to make sure teachers receive pay raises.