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SC teachers push for virtual school after record-setting number of COVID-19 cases reported

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SC for Ed is imploring districts to consider implementing virtual learning as coronavirus cases reach record-setting levels in the state. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in South Carolina, one of the state's most prominent teacher advocacy groups is doubling down on its push for districts to return to online-only classes.  

SC for Ed, the group that organized the 10,000-strong march on the Statehouse steps last year, urged teachers and community members to change their profile pictures on social media to implore districts to consider implementing virtual learning as coronavirus cases reach record-setting levels in the state. 

More than 2,100 coronavirus cases were reported on Tuesday, marking the fifth consecutive day of numbers above 2,000, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control data. 

SC for Ed is asking schools to switch to virtual learning until the pandemic is brought under control in part because of health concerns, said founder Lisa Ellis. But increasing numbers of teachers and school employees sick or in isolation also means there aren't enough adults in schools to keep children safe, she said. 

Teachers are even more fearful now than they were back in early September, when schools first reopened, said SC for Ed board member Dottie Adams. 

"What we're seeing and what we're hearing as teachers are reaching out to us is 'I don't feel safe,' 'Tons of my kids are out sick,' 'I still don't have plexiglass,' or 'They're still not being made to wear masks,'" Adams said. 

SC for Ed has repeatedly called on districts to implement "virtual until safe" COVID-19 reentry plans, with limited success. 

The group went so far as to organize a teacher walkout in late September to protest working conditions and advocate for more education funding. 

While SC for Ed's most recent call to action stopped short of encouraging teachers to take time off of work in protest, educators in several districts have organized their own demonstrations. 

In Lexington-Richland District 5, board members reversed course on the district's model of in-person instruction four days a week after teachers and staff staged a walkout that forced three high schools to close.

Saani Perry, SC for Ed's officer of diversity and inclusion, said he wouldn't be surprised if more protests followed. 

"I don't think SC for Ed has to plan it," Perry said. "You're just seeing teachers quitting or saying 'enough is enough.'"

Part of the frustration teachers are experiencing now comes as several districts consider bringing more students back to the classroom in person, even as virus activity in the state reaches record-breaking levels, Perry said. 

"Districts need to shut down until it's safe for us to return," he said. 

Teachers' desire to return to virtual learning isn't because they don't want to be with students, Perry said. 

Instead, he said, it's because educators not only fear for their health and safety but also the safety of their students, especially those living with immunocompromised adults. 

News of a Lexington elementary schoolteacher's death as a result of COVID-19 complications rocked South Carolina's education community this weekend, further fueling teachers' pleas for online-only learning. 

Staci Blakely, a third-grade teacher at Carolina Springs Elementary School, died Saturday from complications of COVID-19 nearly a month after she was diagnosed. 

She was the third teacher in the Palmetto State to die from coronavirus complications. 

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.

The majority of school districts across the state are operating under a hybrid model, where students spend some days learning in person and other days learning online to limit the number of people in the school building at one time. 

Nearly a quarter of the state’s districts are teaching in person every day, including Charleston County. 

The state's second-largest school district has reported more than 300 cases since Sept. 8. Eighty-two cases were reported last week as students returned to class after Thanksgiving break. 

Two of the district's largest schools, Wando High School and Academic Magnet High School, each reported nine positive COVID-19 cases between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4. 

Wando reported three more cases on Monday, bringing its total to 32. 

To date, Academic Magnet has reported 13 total cases since school started.

No new cases were reported at Academic Magnet or at Wando on Tuesday, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. 

Kate Lewis, a parent of a student who attends Wando, said she wasn't concerned by the recent uptick in cases at her son's school. 

"I think it's everywhere in the community, and obviously we take a risk by sending him but, you know, I also take a risk by going to the grocery store or the gym," she said.  

Wando has done a great job communicating with parents and implementing safety protocol, Lewis said, and she's relieved her son was able to return in person after three weeks of online learning at the start of the year. 

Lewis said she was frustrated by teachers' calls for online-only school and worried what might happen if her son is forced to return to virtual learning. 

"I think it's unfortunate that they would try to shut down in-person learning when there are teachers who are happy to be back in person. And there are students who want to be learning in person," she said. 

District spokesman Andy Pruitt said school officials are continuing to urge students to be cautious and make smart decisions outside of class so that schools can continue to offer an in-person learning option. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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