For weeks now, teachers have been pushing back against S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s effort to give parents the option of sending their kids to class five days a week next month. He’s putting children’s lives at risk in order to get the economy back on track, they charge.
GOP Education Superintendent Molly Spearman even declined the governor’s request to require that five-day-a-week option.
But as school districts hear back from parents, some have seen an overwhelming show of support for sending kids back to the classroom.
In Charleston County, 64% of parents who responded to the district’s survey said they wanted their kids in the classroom.
In Lexington-Richland District 5 in a mostly upscale suburb of Columbia, 65% want their kids in class.
In Greenville County, 70% of parents opted for in-person classes. Ditto Anderson 5.
What’s going on here?
Do parents care less about their children’s health than teachers do?
Or do they simply know that they can’t buy groceries and pay the rent if they stay home with the kids all day, or that kids can’t get the education they need online?
Are teachers letting their legitimate concerns about their own safety cloud their perceptions about kids’ safety?
Is it that teachers tend to be more liberal, whereas parents tend to be more conservative, and COVID-19 is a dangerous new front in our ridiculous culture wars?
Or are the teachers we’re hearing from simply not representative of S.C. teachers as a whole?
I suspect there’s some of all of that going on; well, not the part about parents not caring about their kids, but the rest of it. Like so much in life, this is a lot more complicated than we’re led to believe.
There will always be people acting in bad faith, and certainly there are when it comes to returning to school during a pandemic. But there aren’t a lot of bad guys here. Rather, there are parents and teachers and politicians who are struggling to answer questions that have no clear answers. And within all of those categories, there’s a broad range of opinion.
Ms. Spearman’s spokesman told me Wednesday that he has seen districts where as many as 80% and as few as 20% of parents have opted for in-person classes. For instance, in Richland 2, in another Columbia suburb, two-thirds of parents aren’t comfortable sending their kids back into the classroom.
When more than 3,000 teachers joined a question-and-answer session with Superintendent Spearman on Thursday, three quarters said they weren’t comfortable going back to the classroom. And when 12,000 S.C. teachers participated in a USC survey in June, four out of 10 said they were very concerned about their personal health and safety if they returned.
But that leaves 60% in that larger survey who weren’t concerned about their health and safety. (Many more who participated in the Thursday session were concerned.) And Columbia’s State newspaper reports that 64% of the teachers in Lexington-Richland 5 said it didn’t matter whether they taught in-person or virtually; another 14% said they preferred virtual but would work in person if necessary.
In the Upstate, Greenville Sen. Ross Turner told the Senate’s Re-Open South Carolina Committee on Wednesday that when 23,000 of the 77,000 students in his district opted for the virtual academy, “They couldn’t hardly find enough teachers that want to go virtual; they want to be in the class too.”
Nor is it just Republican politicians who want them there. At that committee meeting in Columbia, all but one of the senators were clear that they want kids back in the classroom; the most articulate advocate for that position was Camden Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
“There are countries who returned their kids to school very successfully,” he said. “There are countries that did it terribly. So it’s not like we’re in a vacuum. … We tend to get bogged down in this dispute about whether they should come back or they shouldn’t come back, where the real question is we want protocols that say this is what should be done to make it safe.”
Ms. Spearman has taken several steps to make it safe, first bringing together experts to provide detailed guidance for school districts on social distancing and other safety measures and more recently requiring face masks on buses, and then on school campuses.
That should mean we won’t see an S.C. version of that notorious Georgia picture, snapped earlier this month by a student who was suspended for taking it and then unsuspended once the protests started pouring in, of unmasked students crowded shoulder to shoulder in a high school hallway.
But as long as some of us refuse to do our part to reduce the community spread of COVID-19, even the best safety measures won’t guarantee that kids don’t get infected, and adults don’t get infected, and we don’t have school outbreaks
Because the one clear fact about education in the midst of a global pandemic remains what Columbia pediatrician Dr. Debbie Greenhouse told the same panel a month earlier: “There’s no win-win situation here.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said 60% of teachers who participated in a question-and-answer session on Thursday were comfortable returning to the classroom; that was the portion in a larger survey of teachers who said they weren’t concerned about their health and safety. Only a quarter of teachers who participated in the Thursday session were comfortable returning.