Teachers in the House gallery (copy) (copy)

Teachers stand in the House gallery Tuesday, Jan. 29, as they're officially recognized in the chamber on a lobbying day organized by SC for Ed. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff 

The Chester County School District announced Thursday it will close May 1, allowing its teachers to protest at the Statehouse in Columbia as part of a statewide activist effort to improve teacher working conditions.

The district is the first in the state to cancel the Wednesday classes for the event, which was organized by a network of teacher activists known as SC for Ed. Chester has about 5,300 students.

"Because many of our teachers have asked for this day as a personal day of leave, we are allowing them to take this day to advocate for public education and for their students," the district announced in a Facebook post and email to staff.

"With the School Board and Superintendent's approval, we support our educators and their decision to exercise their collective voices," the note said.

The district, which lies 60 miles north of Columbia, says it will schedule a makeup day, pending approval by its school board.

The teacher protest will take place on the same day as a similar protest by teachers in North Carolina. The North Carolina protest, announced several weeks in advance, has already led 26 school districts there to announce school closures on May 1, including large districts such as Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, according to The News and Observer.

The South Carolina event — called a "Day of Reflection" by its organizers — is a milder form of protest than the walkouts and strikes that shut schools down for weeks at a time in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Los Angeles since 2017. No plans have been announced to extend the South Carolina protest beyond a single day.

Teachers involved in the protest have been calling for a 10-percent salary increase, smaller classroom sizes, uninterrupted lunch breaks and more mental health counselors for students. After months of debate and input sessions, the S.C. Legislature is expected to pass a smaller raise this year.

Under the latest version of the budget, teachers with fewer than five years of experience would receive a 6- to 10-percent raise, while all others would be guaranteed at least a 4-percent raise.

A major education overhaul bill, the first of its kind in South Carolina since the 1980s, stalled in the Senate Wednesday as the year's legislative session nears the end. Some teachers who criticized its provisions had asked for lawmakers to hold off on passing an omnibus education bill until 2020.

Gov. Henry McMaster weighed in on the teacher protest Thursday in a statement from his spokesman Brian Symmes.

"The governor, the House, and the Senate have all agreed that teacher pay raises must be a priority this year, and because of that, starting salaries will increase and every teacher in the state is set to receive a four percent raise," Symmes said. "With that said, Governor McMaster believes that teachers leaving their classrooms sends the wrong message to students, unnecessarily disrupts schools, and inconveniences their students’ working parents."

Tough decisions

Since SC for Ed publicly announced its protest action Sunday night, teachers, school administrators and parents have faced some difficult decisions about what to do on May 1: Go to Columbia or stay in the classroom? Keep students in school or keep them home for the day?

In Chester County, school board chair Anne H. Collins said she and her fellow board members had to make a call for the sake of student safety. She said she knows parents will have to scramble to find childcare, which is why she pushed to make the decision at a school board meeting Wednesday night.

"We understand that this is an issue for parents, but their children’s safety is our No. 1 concern, and we simply were not going to be able to cover enough classes," Collins said.

As a retired teacher and professor, Collins said she understood the complaints of teachers in her district.

"I have said for quite a while that teachers as a voting bloc would basically control elections if they would be active enough to vote. Our problem was that teachers didn’t vote, so they got what was given to them," Collins said.

"I’m really glad to see that teachers are taking a stand, that they are now actively saying what is best for their students. I applaud them for that," she added. "As the school board chair, it causes us some issues. I have to look at it from both sides. I hope that our legislators will listen."

Elsewhere in the state, Dorchester School District 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor said Thursday that the district has received about 400 substitute teacher requests for May 1 — roughly twice its usual number of requests. The district's pool of substitute teachers includes about 400 people.

Raynor said the district has plans to combine classrooms or shift personnel if needed.

“Right now things appear that we’ll be covered. We’re monitoring each day, but there are no plans at this point in time to close schools,” Raynor added.

Parents weigh their options

Some parents have already decided to keep their children home on May 1. Jake Rambo, a former school principal and Charleston County School Board candidate from Mount Pleasant, announced on Twitter Wednesday that he would be keeping his children home in support of teachers.

"We are keeping our children home from school on May 1 in support of #AllOutMay1," he tweeted. "After promising big education reforms, our state legislature failed to deliver. By failing our teachers, they fail our kids."

Other parents were not as enthusiastic about the protest, as evidenced by the long string of comments beneath Chester County Schools' closure announcement on Facebook.

"Now the kids suffer for y'all walking out," one person commented.

"How are we supposed to make summer vacation plans when y'all keep adding extra days to the school year?" another said.

Still other parents have been looking for ways to support teachers in their protest. 

Eric Jackson, a Charleston County parent and chairman of the Burke High School Improvement Council, said he will be "sponsoring" a local teacher who wants to travel to Columbia but has already used up her paid time off days for the school year.

Dividing her paycheck by the day, she figured she would be missing out on about $157 by taking an unpaid day off — so he sent her that amount via Cash App, a money transfer application for smartphones.

Jackson said he got the idea from a Facebook group of concerned parents who were looking for ways to help out, and it seems to be catching on.

"Teachers are working second or third jobs just to stay above water, so a lot of people were saying, ‘I can sponsor two’ or ‘I can sponsor three,'" Jackson said. "I just think it was a natural, grassroots, authentic way of just supporting our teachers."

To sub or not?

Collins said other districts in her area near the North Carolina border may be considering closures as well, particularly as the supply of substitute teachers is already strained by the planned teacher walkouts across the state line.

Substitute teachers, meanwhile, have their own decisions to make.

Paulette Megee, a retired teacher who now works as a substitute teacher in Greenville County, S.C., and Polk County, N.C., said she has decided to decline all substitute requests on May 1. Other substitute teachers are doing the same, she said, hoping to force more school districts to follow Chester County's lead and shut down for the day.

"It is a hard choice," Megee said. "Sometimes you have to inflict a little pain for people to know. And yeah, it’s putting people at a disadvantage, it’s going to be difficult for parents if schools close, but we’re talking about the future of public education. Sometimes it has to hurt a little bit before they really realize."

Christine LaRue, a substitute teacher in Dorchester County School District 2, represents another school of thought. As soon as she heard about the May 1 protest, she said she reached out to a teacher she knows well and promised to cover her classroom when she goes to Columbia.

"My thought was to make sure that the teachers could leave their classrooms and not have the guilt, to know that their kids were in good hands," LaRue said.

LaRue said she has talked with Megee and other substitute teachers who have taken the opposite stance, and she understands where they are coming from.

"I completely see both sides," LaRue said. "I'm sticking with my plan."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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