As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in South Carolina, one of the state’s most prominent teacher advocacy groups is doubling its efforts to get districts to return to classes online only.
SC for Ed, the group that organized the march of 10,000 people at the Statehouse stages last year, urged teachers and community members to change their profile pictures on social media implore districts to consider implementing virtual learning as coronavirus cases reach record levels in the state.
More than 2,100 coronavirus cases were reported on Tuesday, marking the fifth consecutive day of numbers above 2,000, according to data from the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control.
SC for Ed is asking schools to switch to virtual learning until the pandemic is controlled in part because of health problems, said founder Lisa Ellis. But the growing number of sick or isolated teachers and school staff also means that there are not enough adults in schools to keep children safe, she said.
Teachers are even more fearful now than they were in early September, when schools first reopened, said Dottie Adams, a SC for Ed board member.
“What we are seeing and hearing when teachers come to us is ‘I don’t feel safe’, ‘Tons of my kids are sick’, ‘I still don’t have a plexiglass’ or ‘They still aren’t being forced to wear masks’,” he said. Adams.
SC for Ed has repeatedly asked districts to implement “virtual until safe” COVID-19 reentry plans, with limited success.
The group went so far as to organize a teacher strike in late September to protest working conditions and advocate for more funding for education.
Although the call for more recent SC for Ed action has stopped encouraging teachers to take time off from protest work, educators in several districts have organized their own demonstrations.
In Lexington-Richland District 5, council members reversed the district’s face-to-face model course four days a week after teachers and staff went on strike that forced the closure of three high schools.
Saani Perry, SC for Ed’s diversity and inclusion officer, said he would not be surprised if more protests followed.
“I don’t think the SC for Ed has to plan it,” said Perry. “You are just seeing teachers giving up or saying ‘enough is enough’.”
Part of the frustration that teachers are now facing comes when several districts consider bringing more students back into the classroom in person, even though the virus activity in the state has reached record levels, Perry said.
“The districts need to be closed until it is safe for us to return,” he said.
Teachers’ desire to return to virtual learning is not because they don’t want to be with students, Perry said.
Instead, he said, it is because educators fear not only for their health and safety, but also for the safety of their students, especially those living with immunocompromised adults.
News of the death of a Lexington elementary school teacher as a result of the complications of COVID-19 shook the South Carolina educational community this weekend, further fueling teachers’ pleas for online learning only.
Staci Blakely, a third-grade teacher at Carolina Springs Elementary School, died on Saturday of COVID-19 complications almost a month after being diagnosed.
She was the third teacher in Palmetto state to die of coronavirus complications.
At least four school districts in South Carolina have returned to fully virtual learning. The largest so far – Orangeburg County School District – has sent its 12,000 students home to study until at least the end of the Christmas break.
Most school districts across the state are operating on a hybrid model, where students spend a few days learning in person and other days learning online to limit the number of people in the school building at the same time.
Almost a quarter of the state’s districts are teaching in person every day, including Charleston County.
The state’s second largest school district has reported more than 300 cases since September 8. Eighty-two cases were reported last week, when students returned to school after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Two of the largest schools in the district, Wando High School and Academic Magnet High School, each reported nine positive cases of COVID-19 between November 30 and December 4.
Wando reported three more cases on Monday, bringing the total to 32.
To date, Academic Magnet has reported a total of 13 cases since the beginning of classes.
No new cases were reported in Academic Magnet or Wando on Tuesday, according to the district’s COVID-19 panel.
Kate Lewis, mother of a student who attends Wando, said she was not concerned about the recent increase in cases at her son’s school.
“I think it’s in the whole community and obviously we are at risk of sending him, but, you know, I am also at risk by going to the supermarket or the gym,” she said.
Wando did a great job communicating with parents and implementing the safety protocol, Lewis said, and she is relieved that her son can come back in person after three weeks of online learning earlier this year.
Lewis said she was frustrated by teachers’ calls to an online-only school and worried about what could happen if her son was forced to return to virtual learning.
“I find it regrettable that they try to interrupt personal learning when there are teachers who are happy to be back in person. And there are students who want to learn in person, ”she said.
District spokesman Andy Pruitt said school officials continue to urge students to be cautious and make smart decisions outside the classroom so that schools can continue to offer a face-to-face learning option.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.