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Editorial: Move SC teachers to the front of the COVID-19 vaccine line

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COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Virginia is among a handful of states that have started offering vaccinations for teachers. Here, Bristol elementary school teacher Sara Kate Tallman gets her COVID-19 vaccine Jan. 11 during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

Teachers are not more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than police or firefighters or grocery clerks or any of the other “essential workers” who will be able to line up for vaccinations once South Carolina finishes vaccinating medical workers, nursing home residents and people 70 and older.

In fact, they’re probably less likely, given the mounting medical research — including in Charleston County schools — that suggests it’s safer to spend time in a public school than out in the community.

That suggests that teachers also aren’t any more susceptible to infection than members of the general public.

And if they do contract COVID-19, they’re statistically less vulnerable than those 65 and older to developing a severe case or dying — unless they have an underlying medical condition, in which case an infection would be no more dangerous for them than for nonteachers with similar conditions.

So from a medical perspective, it’s hard to make the case that teachers should be a higher priority for the still-limited doses of the vaccine than they already are just by virtue of being essential workers.

But a lot of people are arguing that Gov. Henry McMaster should move them up to next in line after our medical workers and people 70 and older — and perhaps even start vaccinating them before all of those people get their shots.

We agree.

South Carolina has no more important obligation than educating the next generation. And when kids are attending class online all or even a big part of the time, they’re not learning as well as when they’re in the classroom. They’re not developing and maintaining the social skills that are crucial to success throughout life. They’re suffering emotionally, sometimes with dire consequences.

Beyond that, cases of child abuse and neglect are going undetected, which should concern us all. Additionally, kids are either being left at home alone all day or else their parents are unable to work — which puts a financial strain on their families and hurts our economy as businesses struggle to stay open.

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In other words, a lot of bad things are happening as a result of schools not allowing students to attend in-person classes five days a week.

And the main reason schools in most of our state are on a virtual-only or hybrid schedule is not to protect students from infection. It’s because of objections from teachers.

Many teachers, probably most, understand how important it is for students to be in the classroom and how unlikely it is that they will be infected in the classroom and are more than willing to teach in person. Half the Charleston teachers who participated in a Charleston Teachers Alliance survey in December said it’s essential for students to be in the classroom — not merely that they’re willing to teach, but that it’s essential — a finding that’s consistent with surveys taken even when the prevalence of infection was much lower.

But as with any profession and on any topic, the people who aren’t happy are the loudest, and many school districts, already facing a deepening teacher shortage before the pandemic, are keeping kids out of the classroom all or part of the time based on teachers’ objections.

So the faster we can get teachers vaccinated, the faster we can get schools reopened.

As Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association and Sherry East of the S.C. Education Association explained in a joint letter to Mr. McMaster last week, with many teachers taking medical leave because they’re in high-risk categories and schools struggling to find substitutes when teachers have to be quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19, “vaccine access for educators would play a significant role in making something closer to normal school operations attainable.”

In his State of the State address, Mr. McMaster asked the Legislature to force school districts to offer in-person classes to all students whose parents want it. The previous day, S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman asked the governor and DHEC to "prioritize the vaccination of educators and support staff" and coordinate with school districts on getting teachers and staff vaccinated quickly.

That simple change could increase the Legislature's willingness to order schools reopened. Even better, it might eliminate the need.

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