No raises. Heightened health risks. No voice in shaping their own landscape.
For one elementary school teacher in the Horry County Schools system, the first two weeks of being back in the classroom have only exacerbated her fears, not quelled them.
And she had no say in how she returned to the classroom.
“I was not offered any opportunity to express my thoughts,” said the teacher, a 10-year veteran of the profession.
She’d shout it from the rooftops, but says she has been told to “stay quiet and do your job,” which is why she preferred to stay anonymous, fearful that speaking up would lead to heartache for herself and her students. She feels that the voices of teachers have been stifled, “even though many of us are concerned about the many, many issues.”
Horry County Schools did not offer a response as to whether they’ve asked teachers to avoid public statements — although the Post and Courier has asked multiple employees about the return to school and have been referred back to the district consistently.
For the teacher, knowing what her “job” is has become a daily obstacle, admitting that she feels more like a babysitter than an educator.
Social distancing with elementary school students is proving to be difficult, as the children gravitate toward each other throughout the day, something that she has to remind them they cannot do on a regular basis.
Add in that the desks aren’t a full 6 feet apart in her classroom — as well as most of the rooms at the elementary school — and her attention has to shift to maintaining health protocols instead of instruction, reminding children of the importance of personal hygiene.
“They're good after being redirected,” she said.
The teacher said that during the school day, the children are confined to their classrooms, although bathrooms are located in hallways, which students walk to on their own, as the teacher must maintain supervision of their individual classrooms.
According to the teacher, there is no one to monitor the bathrooms for proper social distancing, nor thorough washing of hands.
HCS did not respond to multiple inquiries over the bathroom protocols on all campuses, specifically elementary schools where students are likely under the age of 12.
At the end of the school day, students at this particular elementary school are taken to the cafeteria, where the teacher has observed fellow instructors and students not practicing social distancing while conversing.
“When students are waiting to go outside, they're sitting in the cafeteria and across from one another,” she said. “So not observing the 6-foot rule.”
The teacher said that the children aren’t the only ones that she is worried about, as following COVID-19 protocols on campus isn’t universal, pointing to other teachers and administrators not utilizing masks properly — some not wearing them while instructing, or having them below their noses for much of the day. The teacher feels that it creates an internal strife knowing that not all employees are on the same page.
“Some teachers have very different (views) from others regarding the virus. So some people take it much more seriously than other people and without the school being cohesive it's really difficult to navigate,” she said.
“It would have been really nice to have one announcement that every person in the school needs to abide by the same exact rules no matter if you are a teacher, support staff, student, etc.”
Her classroom isn’t equipped with any plexiglass and the door remains closed all day long — with the exception of the delivery of breakfast and lunch to the classrooms, a new protocol that keeps students from congregating in the cafeteria.
She says that other schools within HCS have plexiglass, something she admits would make her feel like she has a barrier to keep herself healthy throughout the school year.
Does she feel safe in her own classroom?
“Not at all,” she said.
HCS did not address the differentiation between classroom settings, nor confirmed the use of plexiglass anywhere in the district, after repeated attempts to get clarification on the matter.
Teaching in a brick-and-mortar environment has brought to the forefront that the district’s teachers didn’t receive their annual “step” raises, as well as no hazard pay.
On Sept. 15, the South Carolina Senate did pass changes to the state budget for 2020-21 that will allow small raises for most teachers, although there will be no hazard pay.
Prior to the passage, communication surrounding the lack of raises was concerning for the elementary school teacher, who relies on that small bump to financially stay afloat as costs rise in Horry County.
“At bare minimum we should have been offered what we always get and maybe even some kind of hazard pay on top of that. But I understand the government has to trickle things down which never seems to really work out,” she said.
HCS did not respond to questions about their communication plan with its teachers over the summer.
The teacher does consider herself lucky to have had the option to choose to teach in the district’s “hybrid” model, as she knows many teachers that were assigned to HCS Virtual and left to navigate a virtual system that caused more than 14,000 students to start a week late due to scheduling and technology issues. She says that the “hybrid” students also struggle with technology, leaving her only imagining what full-time virtual teachers are coping with.
“Wifi was barely working for a lot of students,” she said. “Some students are not as tech savvy.”
The teacher believes that HCS purposely delayed decision-making to keep teachers in limbo, not giving them time to find other work in an environment where unemployment continues to be at record levels.
“Knowing how shady the unemployment is down here, people were waiting months and months to get approved. It was impossible to leave your job,” she said. “By waiting until the very, very end absolutely I think they were trying to make sure as many teachers as possible didn't look for a new job.”
HCS did not comment on whether teachers were assigned HCS Virtual duties, nor the motivations behind the delays in decision-making.
The lack of communication and collaboration has left the teacher considering a career move — something that she won’t do now, but isn’t taking it off the table down the line.
“Teachers are very highly needed down here. And they really don't pay as well as most other states,” she said.
Ultimately, the teacher believes that starting the school year with multiple educational options — hybrid and full-time virtual — did not allow the district, teachers and students to get into a rhythm prior to the chaos of reintroducing the physical classroom.
“It just makes me crazy to see that other states, particularly in the Northeast who are handling this better, have opted to do virtual and seem to have a much better grasp on things then down here,” she said.
The return of in-person instruction has already led to seven Horry County schools reporting active COVID-19 cases, including three high schools.
One of those high schools is St. James, which currently has less than five cases of students who have tested positive for the virus.
SJHS Principal Vann Pennell said though his school is in uncharted waters, teachers, staff and students have handled the pandemic exceptionally well.
“They have really responded,” Pennell said. “It’s not what they expected, it’s not the high school they left in March, but it’s something they have to deal with.”
The high school has not received any out-of-the-ordinary complaints as the semester has started, Pennell said.
St. James High has taken safety precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus by implementing three separate dismissals to lower the number of students in hallways, offers grab-and-go breakfasts and students eat meals in the classrooms, Pennell said.
“Kids will do what you ask them to do if they know you care and love them. It’s not the norm they are used to,” he said.
Questions about the contact tracing with the high school’s positive cases and how many students are in quarantine as a result of them have been referred to the district, which stated that they would not offer any further information about the potential spread on campus due to privacy issues.
Avoiding the potential clusters on campus and subsequent need to protect data is something that the elementary school teacher feels could have been avoided, as she was genuinely surprised that HCS decided to start the school year with the “hybrid” model, especially considering the county had a 14.5 percent positivity rate with COVID-19 tests when the decision was made.
On March 15, when all schools in South Carolina were shut down, there were only a handful of positive cases in the county.
“They hoped and prayed (it would) get better,” she said. “They shut down when the positivity rate was like 2 to 4 percent positive, now we are averaging 15-20.
“It just seems absolutely ridiculous to me to open in person with these numbers.”