South Carolina teachers want virtual school again after COVID-19 spike

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With new COVID-19 cases reaching record levels in South Carolina, a teachers group is asking districts to go back to all-virtual teaching until this second spike in the virus can be flattened.

The plea was given more emotional weight over the weekend after the death of 50-year-old third-grade teacher Staci Blakely. Her family asked Lexington School District 1 to publicly announce her death from COVID-19 to remind people how serious the disease can be, District Superintendent Greg Little said in a statement.

Blakely was a 28-year teaching veteran who was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Nov. 11. No one else in her classroom at Carolina Springs Elementary School in Lexington has been infected, the district said.

“Mrs. Blakely’s death is a tragedy. She was a wonderful, warm teacher who will be missed. One of the ways we can celebrate her life is being sure that we continue to take care of each other,” Little said.

At least four school districts in South Carolina have returned to all-virtual learning. The largest so far — Orangeburg County School District — sent its 12,000 students home to learn until at least the end of Christmas break, starting Monday. Nearly a quarter of the state’s districts are teaching in person every day. The rest are a hybrid mix of online and in-person learning to make sure the number of people inside school buildings stays at a safe level.

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Grassroots teacher group SC for Ed is asking for schools to all go virtual until the pandemic can get under control in part because of health concerns, but also because increasing numbers of teachers and school employees sick or in isolation means there aren’t enough adults in schools to keep children safe, organization founder Lisa Ellis said.

Even with the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine potentially arriving in South Carolina next week, that could be a long time. The first shots in the state will go to nursing home patients and health care workers who deal directly with infected patients, state health officials said.

It may be well into the spring or summer before enough doses are available to the general public. Health experts have stressed that the best ways for now to stop the dangerous trend in coronavirus cases are to practice social distancing, use masks, wash hands and get tested regularly if interacting with members of the public.

When averaged out over seven days, South Carolina is seeing about 2,300 new COVID-19 cases a day. That’s more than during the July peak that saw the state among the nation’s leaders in coronavirus spread.

Deaths are climbing too, with the state seeing an average of 30 a day. Hospitals are reporting more COVID-19 cases, but at the moment still have beds available.

The percentage of tests that come back positive has been above 20% for much of the past week. Health experts have said anything above 10% can indicate uncontrolled spread of the disease.

Chief Justice Don Beatty has suspended all jury trials in South Carolina because of the rapid COVID-19 spread. A number of lawmakers and staffers were asked to get tested and isolate themselves after at least one state representative tested positive after attending last week’s South Carolina House organizational session.

State health officials feared this second wave of cases and predicted it would only get worse over the Thanksgiving holidays as people gathered with others from outside their homes, often inside, and shared meals.

Gov. Henry McMaster joined the pre-holiday pleas to be careful and get tested. But he has repeatedly said he has no plans to issue a statewide mask order or close any businesses.

For a third time since the pandemic started, Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham on Monday asked McMaster to reconsider the state’s mask rules.

“It appears our governor has simply given up on fighting the spread of this deadly virus. This lack of political courage by the governor has indirectly encouraged apathy towards the virus and unquestionably led to an increase in cases and deaths in our state,” Cunningham said in a statement.