BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WSAV) – South Carolina School Superintendent Molly Spearman officially approved a five day a week in-person class schedule for Beaufort County schools on Thursday.
The school system delayed its start date until Sept. 8 to help protect students. But many teachers say they still don’t feel safe.
News 3 sat down with four of them who were willing to share their concerns.
“At this point, the narrative is almost backward,” said Willie Tural. “You are supposed to plan for the worst and hope for the best but we are planning for the best and hoping that no one gets sick.”
“I want to be in the classroom. There’s no better feeling than being with my students,” explains Tyron McMilon, a Beaufort County Elementary School teacher, adding, “But let’s do it when it is safe.”
With his wife teaching 4th grade, son in high school and daughter in middle school, McMilon is even more concerned.
“Our chances our four times higher because we are in four different locations,” he said.
“You are asking us to put our lives on the line for something. I am not saying we didn’t sign up for because we did sign up, we did choose to educate but I did not choose whether I want to die,” said McMilon. “I want to go to a classroom because of a virus we didn’t sign up for that.”
Barbie Newsome has immunocompromised people in her house and has planned to keep her own kids at home rather than send them to in-person school. As a pre-K teacher, she is also worried about how she will be able to do her job.
“How are you going to social distance 3- and 4-year-olds? How are you going to have them wear their masks?” Newsome asked.
“Especially with the little ones, I’m so used to hugging them and holding them and dancing with them,” she explained. “That’s what pre-K is all about, exploring, and having fun. How are we going to do that now?”
McMilon agrees that younger kids may struggle with keeping a mask on and social distancing.
“This is what they come to school for, for the social interaction…to work together, to teach them about community,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to imagine teaching first graders how to stay 6 feet away from their friend they haven’t seen since last March.”
Charity Jenkins says her concern is the curriculum.
“It is going to take away from that as well. We are going to have to put all those things into play,” she said. “How are we going to achieve the goal of educating them on the curriculum and keep them safe? It is going to be a hard task.”
“What has been overlooked is what happens to the kid who feels like he killed his teacher,” said Tural. “How do you compensate for that? How do you get them in the right direction when he feels like he has killed the person he feels is his superhero?”
All four teachers said 99.9% of their fellow educators are scared or worried about the fall semester and COVID-19.
“Everybody who has been in that classroom is concerned right now,” said Tural. “There is no way this is a classroom that we want it to look like and there is now a way we can continue to do our job as educators under these conditions.”
He said “we lost precious time” debating whether to go back to school or not rather than focusing on improving the virtual learning experience.
When News 3 asked the group if they felt teachers have had any say in the process, they all responded: “Absolutely not.”
“We know our students we know what they need,” said Jenkins. “So at this time we shouldn’t be placed inside of a box and left to not make decisions.”
“As teachers, we are still sitting in the dark right now,” explains McMilon. “We don’t know how we are going to teach. We don’t know how we are going to set up our classrooms”
“A lot of the plan has just been back door plan,” said Tural. “Zoom meetings that we are not a part of and they say well this is what we are thinking here. And it’s more ultimatums than plans.”
Tural said no matter how schools start out, if COVID-19 spikes, all students will have to return to virtual learning.
He said as teachers prepare for in-person learning, “what we are really looking at is what the worst school would look like.”
“Everybody stays still. Nobody breathes on each other. No social interaction. We would call this a horrible classroom and this is what we are coming back to,” Tural said.
The teachers believe Beaufort County School Superintendent Dr. Frank Rodriguez has students’ best interests and safety in mind, but that he and the entire district are hamstrung by rulings that come from the state.
“This is our opinion this is our beliefs and it should be taken into consideration how we feel,” said Jenkins. “It should be with our local district, not all the way at the top we know what the community needs, what the students need. We know the situation we are in right now.”
“That’s the biggest part for me, in education,” says McMilon. “I feel like teachers never have a say in any decision that is made. I feel like the kids need me and I feel so burned out right now. I feel like in education we don’t have a voice and if we do have a voice it is not heard.”
The Beaufort County School District does have a system for teachers and everyone on staff to request a hardship waiver and teach online only. But in the last report, less than 200 of 2,700 staff members have applied.
“Doesn’t everybody qualify?” wonders Tural. “That’s the problem — everybody qualifies because there is no research that suggests anyone is immune or someone is going to die. People have died from 3 to 93 so nobody is safe here. We don’t know who it is going to affect. We won’t know anyone is immunocompromised until its too late.”
The teachers say virtual-only would be the best plan right now until the virus numbers lower. That means teachers need to be ready to work with students all day long and find better ways to help parents educate their kids.
They also say while there have been improvements to make students have internet connections, teachers have been left out. Many teachers are concerned about their internet connection and not losing it during lessons — but no one has offered to aid educators with their bills or connections.