Should SC teachers get vaccines sooner rather than later?

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SOUTH CAROLINA (WSAV) – The debate over whether South Carolina teachers should get vaccinated sooner rather than later is now in the hands of state legislators.

While a bill adding educators to the current group of eligible people for immunization passed unanimously in the State Senate, the House has a lot more questions and concerns.

A House Committee met Wednesday to debate the issue for the first time.

Some legislators there already showed reservations to moving up teachers and school staff.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford said putting teachers and seniors in the same group for vaccine appointments was like “The Hunger Games,” where a fight for survival might ensue.

“I’m not aware of a teacher in South Carolina who wants to get vaccinated before our elderly and before our most at-risk or vulnerable,” explains Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association. “The reality is we shouldn’t be talking about this as an either-or proposition. We should be talking about it as a state finding way this can both be a vote and a proposition.”

“We knew this was coming,” continued Kelly. “This is a failure of planning and logistics. And again to those that say no it is not it’s going to have to be an either-or. No, it’s not. There are more than 25 states that have figured out how to vaccinate their elderly and their educators. Vaccines have been allocated on a per capita basis. So we are not disadvantaged compared to another state, we just didn’t have logistics in place.”

Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association testified at the hearing. he says if the virus continues to spread, there could continue to be problems with finding enough staff for each classroom.

“Our schools are struggling and buckling under a staffing shortage that existed before the pandemic,” said Kelly. “The pandemic is exacerbating it with hundreds of teachers per day out on medical leave, out on quarantine, or out because they have contracted COVID-19. Which means we don’t have the level of staffing at our schools to deliver the level of education our students need and deserve.”

There were 699 teaching vacancies at the beginning of this school year according to Kelly. That’s a 27% increase over last year. Mid-year resignations were also up compared to past years statewide. kelly believes if you don’t stabilize staffing in schools now, those numbers could be even more striking in the Fall.

“Allow this to continue happening,” continues Kelly. “With these staffing shortages and teachers having to do double duty because we can’t find substitute teachers. That’s going to continue to burn people out. In a state already in a teaching shortage crisis, we are not in a position to run off another teacher from the classroom.”

Governor Henry McMaster has voiced his opposition to moving educators up on the list. He said it’s “morally wrong” and threatens the elderly population by not allowing them all the vaccines available.

McMaster believes schools can reopen five days a week with in-person instruction without teachers being vaccinated.

Beaufort County is already back in-person in class five days a week, Jasper County four days. In Beaufort County, while COVID-19 cases have been limited, there have been hundreds of students and teachers quarantined so far. Changing many plans for small classrooms and an easier transition back to “normal” schooling.

“If our goal for opening school buildings is just to open the school buildings then you are right, our argument for vaccinations is invalid. But if our goal is for them to have a rich learning experience then I would encourage them to talk to teachers in Beaufort and Jasper county, students in Beaufort and Jasper and ask them how many of their colleagues, how many of their teachers have been out in recent weeks due to quarantine or contracting COVID-19. Every teacher that is out of the building means one more student that isn’t getting that one on one exposure with a teacher.”

Of the 120,000 teachers and school staff polled in the Palmetto State recently, between 72-75,000 said they would take the vaccine now if offered.

Several other state agencies also spoke to the House Committee spoke up at the same hearing, believing their workers are also “essential” and should be prioritized when it comes to getting vaccinated.

There was no final vote from the subcommittee. They adjourned looking for more information on the topic from DHEC.

The delay also will give them more time to research the future of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That vaccine may get FDA emergency use authorization by early March, which could lead to much more supply, and could be a benefit to getting more people vaccinated quicker.

The subcommittee members plan to meet again next week.

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