‘Virtual until safe': SC teachers motor march to protest reopening schools

SOUTH CAROLINA — South Carolina teachers descended on the state capital Monday with one message in mind -- “Virtual until safe.”

It’s a mantra educators wanted Gov. Henry McMaster to hear loud and clear as they joined a motor march to protest his requirement that schools need to offer an option of being open five days a week.

Teachers said they want to start the year with remote-learning only.

With South Carolina being a leader with it comes to rising COVID-19 cases, teachers don’t think it is safe to go back to in-person learning. For example, Rock Hill Schools are expected to have students on campus most of the week.

The governor has been pushing for in-person learning, a move teachers believe is political. They said he got rid of the Education Board after they failed to support that idea.

Teachers from across the state, blew their horns, waved, and taped signs to their cars in Columbia.  

They paraded around the South Carolina State House and the governor’s mansion, calling for school to be all virtual when classes begin next month.

Some cars had “I can’t teach from the grave” written on windows. Others said “virtual until safe,” which is the social media hashtag that SC for ED used for this week’s events.

SC for ED is a mostly online community that supports the state’s teachers and pushes lawmakers on funding, salaries, benefits and other education issues.

Ali Tracy- Mchenry teaches at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill and drove down for the motor march. She said teachers know that the classroom is the best learning environment for students.

“All teachers really want to be back to in-person learning five days a week, like it was before this pandemic.  It’s just not realistic right now,” she said.

Many older teachers near retirement are faced with the choice of quitting, concerned about the the risk to their health.  Some have pre-existing conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19.

“Losing one life is just gonna be too many.  I’m worried for the children and for the teachers,” said Darlington County teacher Joni Gilbert.

Lexington County teacher Steve Nuzum questioned the benefit of opening schools when COVID-19 cases are high statewide, if people start getting sick.

“My fear, and I think all our fears is that in a week or two we’ll be shut down again,” said Nuzum.

Most districts in our coverage area in South Carolina are not offering 5-day classes to start the school year. Depending on the individual school district,  surveys have found that anywhere from 10 to 20% percent of students have signed up for virtual school. However, many can’t learn online because they don’t have internet access,which is a pressing issue statewide. Teachers say they will have to work harder to make sure those students don’t fall behind.

Katie Harris teaches at Fort Mill Elementary School.

“We’re gonna do our absolute best to make virtual learning a success, and we’re gonna try to reach every kid we possibly can,” she said.

Monday afternoon’s protest isn’t’ the end.  It’s part of a week of action for South Carolina teachers.

They will begin a statewide letter-writing effort on Tuesday to reach school boards and state lawmakers. On Thursday, they plan more protests at local school district offices around the state.

Late Monday, State School Superintendent Molly Spearman issued a mask requirement for all school buses. That means students, the driver and all staff must wear a mask while riding a bus.  Currently, school buses are limited to carrying only 50% capacity. Spearman said requiring masks and following all cleaning processes, would boost ridership to 67%.  

Teachers demonstrated last week at the Fort Mill School Board.