Sam Spence file photo

Gov. Henry McMaster's decision to require schools to reopen with in-person classes this fall has drawn considerable scrutiny from advocates and the South Carolina teachers who will carry out his order to reenter classrooms in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

At a July 15 press conference, McMaster ordered all public schools to provide reopening plans for the fall. Students and parents will have the option of in-class education or online classes, according to McMaster. "Parents need to have a choice," he said. "They need to say to their districts whether they want their children to go in-class five days a week or whether they want a virtual education at home. It must be their choice, but we must have our schools available."

SC for Ed and the Palmetto State Teachers Association (PSTA) issued statements opposing McMaster's order. SC for Ed called on educators to urge State Superintendent Molly Spearman to prioritize student and staff safety and to follow guidance from state health officials, calling McMaster's statements "careless and dangerous."

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In an open letter, the PSTA said its members "categorically" oppose McMaster's push to restart classes in districts across the state. "We believe this action would needlessly jeopardize the health and safety of our state's 800,000 students and more than 50,000 teachers," the letter said. The organization advocated for schools operating in a "distance learning model," as recommended by the state's AccelerateEd task force, convened under McMaster's AccelerateSC group at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

As teachers and advocacy groups continue to speak out, school districts are deciding how to cautiously open their doors to students in the coming months at the governor's request.

McMaster also asked Spearman to reject school district plans that do not allow students to attend classes in-person.

Sydney Van Bulck, a teacher at W.B. Goodwin Elementary School in Charleston County, commented that she's just as concerned about students losing a quality education as she is about their health and safety. "I fully believe that I would be a better teacher virtually than the teacher trying to adhere to all of those guidelines," she said. "There's way too much panic in the building to be an effective educator. At this point, I'm going to be a sanitizer-in-chief instead of an educator, whereas virtually, I can give 100 percent of my dedication to learning and teaching."

Lauren, a Berkeley County School District high school librarian who preferred to go by her first name only out of fear of reprisal, said the state needs to fully mandate funding for personal protective equipment. "I know a teacher who just went out and spent $400 on plexiglass and she's putting it all around her desk and she's not going to get up during that day," Lauren said. "She has some health problems."

She suggested going back to virtual education for another nine weeks to watch the COVID-19 statistics. "It's my opinion [that] we will go back to school, there will be an outbreak, and then what? We're just going to close down again and go to virtual."

Earlier this week, SC for Ed published results of a survey which asked 7,883 educators about possible health factors that may put them at higher risk for COVID-19 infection. Among respondents, 43.47 percent were at a higher risk, 65.28 percent had a prior health condition and 29.29 percent were over the age of 50.

Charleston County's "Safe Restart" plan will go in front of the school board Monday. In the plan, Charleston County School District (CCSD) recommends that school starts on Sept. 8, desks will be spaced 6 feet apart and students and staff will be expected to wear face coverings. Students may remove their masks when they are seated in class.

The county's current analysis, according to the plan, estimates half of all CCSD schools can bring their entire student body back to school for in-person class while still implementing social distancing measures. The remaining schools will be able to bring back 50-90 percent of students, the report claimed.

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Several teachers questioned the estimate that 50 percent of schools can bring all students back. "I sure would like to know where that number is coming from and which schools they are talking about," Van Bulck said. "We have been left out of the loop on basically all of the details."

Lauren said around 60 percent of students at her Berkeley County school have signed up for in-person classes. She points to logistical issues as another problem that doesn't seem to have a solution. "If you wanted to social distance the desks 6 feet apart, that would be 12 desks," she said. "That's 12 students, plus a teacher."

AcceleratedED provided a list of recommendations to help guide schools through problems with transportation, meal services and COVID-19 cases on campus. SC for Ed believes school districts are not closely following those recommendations or those of the federal Centers for Disease Control or the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Van Bulck said, with the current plans provided, she feels like teachers are being "thrown to the wolves."

"My whole life revolves around my job. And I don't mean CCSD particularly, but the state in general, [is] saying that I am expendable," she said. "If I die because they send me back, well I'm just a small percentage. That's a slap in the face for someone who's dedicated her life to this career and this state and this school and these families."