Martha Gasque said she wanted to teach ever since she was in kindergarten, and has taught in the state for 17 years, but said Wednesday was the first day she ever considered leaving the teaching profession.
“I understand Governor McMaster's focus on giving students the absolute best possible education, but unfortunately, students, teachers, and staff cannot go back to full-time face-to-face instruction without incredible health risks,” Gasque said.
Earlier this week, Gov. Henry McMaster said he would ask State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman not to approve any school re-opening plan that did not include a choice for parents to make between in-person, face-to-face, full-time learning, and full-time virtual learning.
"Teachers will be back every day, there's no plan ... for the teachers not to be in the school. We want to have as many children as possible in schools with them and that will be a choice of the parents," McMaster said.
School districts across the state are in the midst of developing plans for the best way to re-open schools among the COVID-19 pandemic, and Spearman’s office asked them to be submitted to her office by today for perusal, but extensions were available. Horry County Schools will submit their final plan after their August 3 board meeting.
Gasque, who teaches at Ocean Bay Middle, said that the Governor’s announcement undermined the hard work of the state’s AccelerateED Task Force, “and its reliance on solid educational reasoning combined with science.”
Spearman, who spent the last few months working with the state AccelerateED Task Force to establish school re-opening guidelines, was notably absent from the press conference.
McMaster said during the press conference that Spearman was invited but did not come. Her office released a statement in response.
“Every South Carolina parent must be afforded the option to choose virtual learning or a face to face model for their child this school year. The pandemic has shown the vital importance of our public education system and the broad range of services beyond teaching it provides for our students every day. Our goal must be a return to five day a week in person instruction as safely and as soon as possible,” Spearman’s statement read. “We cannot, however turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world. School leaders, in consultation with public health experts, are best positioned to determine how in-person operations should be carried out to fit the needs of their local communities. I remain committed to supporting them in this endeavor and will only approve those plans that offer high quality options and keep safety as their top priority.”
Melanie Abston, who has taught at Conway High School for over 17 years, said that hundreds of highly-qualified teachers are willing and wanting to get back to the classrooms, as so many want to get back to “a normal that doesn’t include COVID-19 and the human, economic, and social damage it’s done to our communities.”
“Unfortunately, the rest of Gov. McMaster’s statements outlined a plan and a rationale that puts a large portion of our communities directly in harm’s way,” Abston said. “A lot is being done to improve the virtual learning experience for all stakeholders - teachers, students, and parents.”
According to data presented by the Horry County Board of Education at their July 13 meeting, taking into account all DHEC guidelines and disease spread data, only one single county in S.C. could open now with anything but full-time distance learning.
Out of 4,170 staff surveyed, 96 percent of teachers in Horry County plan to return to work, yet another survey question answered by 4,178 educators said that 25 percent of teachers noted they had extenuating circumstances due to COVID-19 that may prevent them from returning.
Abston said there has been a lack of action among the state and local government to slow, control, or stop the spread of COVID-19.
“So when he [McMaster] says we need to take every step at our disposal to get students back into the classroom, I have to question his motives and his sincerity,” Abston said.
Senator Greg Hembree responds
Many teachers took to social media to voice their thoughts on the press conference, including comments made by Senator Greg Hembree, chair of the Senate Education Committee, that said while this past spring’s distance learning got an “A+ for effort”, that the results were “abysmal”.
“The spring's distance learning was teaching and planning under emergency circumstances, and the results certainly were far above Senator Hembree's grade of D-. While distance learning is not the optimal way for most students to learn outside of a pandemic, teachers will be able to train and prepare for distance learning in this coming school year, which makes it different from last spring,” Gasque said.
Abston said that too many people already question the value and merit of teachers, and hold schools accountable for society’s troubles.
“I fear Mr. Hembree has just fueled the fires,” Abston said.
Hembree said that some educator complaints about his distance learning comments were just “bad interpretation.”
“I said teachers did a great job. They got an A+ based on what they were asked to do. It was a darn near impossible job. Despite their diligent efforts … the results have been poor,” Hembree said Friday.
Hembree said his sources for that comment included parent and student input, and a group out of Oregon called the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) who he said are experts on school MAP testing. He said the group made test result projections and called the less-than-stellar results “the COVID slide”.
“My point is we cannot afford to continue a failed experiment. We’ve got to try something different,” Hembree said. “It was never a criticism of teachers. That was totally misunderstood.”
Hembree also cited an article in the press conference saying that other countries have opened schools with no issues.
“[Hembree] omitted the part of that same Washington Post article that says, ‘Still, public health officials and researchers caution that most school reopenings are in their early stages. Much remains unknown about the interaction between children, schools and the virus,’” Gasque said. “Schools have only reopened in countries where the virus is under better control than in many parts of the United States.”
Hembree said that children don’t transmit the disease the same way the adults do, and schools can use appropriate protocols to make sure adults are separated as much as possible.
McMaster focused most of his press conference on how parents need to have a choice for how to send their children back to school, and Hembree commented that teachers chose the profession, and it is their responsibility to continue.
“The governor's announcement focused on parent choice but left teachers and school staff with no choice unless they choose to leave their job,” Gasque said. “When we chose this as our profession, we never agreed to risking death or lifelong health complications due to a virus that we contracted because we were sent to school in a time when science clearly shows that it is not safe.”
Hembree said teachers are getting the coronavirus at the same rate as every other person.
“I think if we use proper mitigation strategies, I don’t think they are being put in danger any more than any other job. When you go into public service, you are making a contract with your fellow citizens – you’re giving something up. But if you don’t want to be in public service … if it’s not for you … that’s ok,” Hembree said.
He suggested possibly re-opening lower grades to in-person instruction at first, and do more hybrid options with the older students.
“My thought process is constantly evolving too,” Hembree said.
The advocacy group SC for Ed, made up of educators across the state, issued a statement on the matter as well.
“As an organization, we are saddened, disappointed, and appalled by today’s careless and dangerous statements on the part of Governor McMaster,” SC for Ed's statement read. “Governor McMaster’s pressuring of the State Superintendent of Education to require all district plans, regardless of the spread of the virus in each district, flies in the face of recommendations from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, AccelerateED, the state Superintendent of Education, and all three major state education organizations.”
Hembree said he didn’t think evidence suggested that schools were going to be dangerous if they opened while using correct cleaning and distancing protocols.
“If we see a spike, we need to back off. We are almost two months away [from school starting]. If it gets to be late August and this thing is roaring like a lion and it’s clear it’s not safe … we can back up and do Plan B easily,” Hembree said.
Hembree said he worries that if schools begin virtually instead of in-person, it will be harder to flip back to in-person than the other way around, if by September DHEC numbers suggest it is safe to go back in-person.
Gasque addressed school funding.
“For a long time, schools and teachers have been doing the best they can, given the parameters they have and the inadequate funding they receive. The state is right to be concerned about education but should be funding it in a way that backs up their concern,” Gasque said.
Hembree said that on average across the state, schools get $14,000 - $15,000 per pupil and that those numbers are above the national average. He also said it’s not up to him what happens to the funding once it ends up with local school districts.
“We don’t spend it, we just send it,” Hembree said. “The way districts use it and allocate it is up to them. Do you have concerns about that? I do. They are on to something really important. They need to take it up with their local school districts,” Hembree said. “They [districts] want the power to spend it, but not the responsibility, when the going gets tough.”
SC for Ed went on to ask all educators to encourage Superintendent Spearman to allow districts to use DHEC guidance, which is what Horry County Board of Education Chairman Ken Richardson also hopes to be able to do.
“Speaking for myself, and not on behalf of the board, I believe it is important to use our state’s disease experts to guide our decision making for when and how we return our students and employees to schools,” Richardson said in part of his statement.
The school board’s proposed draft re-opening plan shared Monday can be viewed here.
The board also approved moving the school start date to Sept. 8, during Monday’s three-and-a-half hour board meeting, to give the board more time to formulate a solid plan.