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Editorial: SC schools need to learn the hard lessons of pandemic

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Classroom at Riverbank Elementary (copy)

School districts have to balance the needs of teachers who are worried about returning to the classroom with parents who need their children to be back in class. Chris Trainor/Staff

Many S.C. teachers were already so upset about their working conditions that they left the classroom for a day last year to protest at the Statehouse. They were planning a second protest over added responsibilities without added compensation and decreased autonomy and respect when COVID-19 closed schools, sent learning into a makeshift remote mode and put the protest on hold.

Many of those same teachers were understandably concerned about returning to the classrooms this fall, particularly since too many schools and districts aren’t doing enough to enforce social distancing and mask mandates to reduce the spread of the infection.

So no one should have been surprised when The Post and Courier’s Jenna Schiferl reported that — like people in other professions who are particularly worried about infection and have the means to make the choice — more than 50 teachers in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties have quit since schools reopened in September.

Some of this is normal churn — 21 teachers left during the same period last year — and the departures come to less than 1% of the 7,000 teachers in the tri-county area. But the fact is that the Lowcountry, like all of South Carolina and indeed most of the nation, already faced a teacher shortage before COVID. That means any loss is worrisome, and any departing teachers are difficult to replace, particularly mid-year.

So the departures should serve as a reminder to leaders at the district and school levels that they can’t take teachers for granted.

Some things are out of local officials’ control, since the COVID recession quashed legislative plans to give teachers a third consecutive year of substantial pay increases and put on hold the smaller raises that teachers receive every year (which legislative leaders say they hope to approve in January). The pandemic also curtailed the legislative session, killing a package of school reforms two years in the making.

But district and school leaders need to do everything they reasonably can to accommodate teachers’ individual concerns, to make them feel more comfortable when their concerns can’t be accommodated and to give them the sort of professional respect that they should have been getting all along.

What they can’t do is take further steps to curtail students’ education. They can’t close the school doors and lock children into an educationally inadequate and socially isolating virtual learning environment again. They can’t force parents to risk losing their jobs again to oversee their children’s learning 24-7.

Clearly, school districts face a difficult task of balancing teachers’ concerns against the concerns of parents. Most S.C. districts started the school year tilting the balance in favor of teachers by keeping learning remote or mostly remote; indeed, some didn’t let the first students back into the classrooms until this month. That understandably upset a lot of parents.

This week, the Charleston County School District tried to accommodate the interests of parents by allowing more students back into the schools and the interests of teachers by rearranging its temporary remote classes to reduce the number of teachers who have to teach both in-person and virtual students simultaneously. Predictably, the decisions angered some teachers and some parents.

The fortunate fact is that here and elsewhere, most parents and teachers recognize that there’s no such thing as prefect in the midst of a pandemic, and their preferences are in fairly close alignment.

While most parents might feel uncomfortable sending their children back to school, they recognize the severe problems with remote learning, or have to go to work to put food on the table, or both. And while most teachers probably are uncomfortable teaching while COVID-19 remains out of control in our state, most are profoundly aware of the fact that remote learning is not an adequate substitute educationally or emotionally or in pretty much any other way for children, and they recognize that while we can close society for a few weeks during a pandemic, we can’t keep it closed for months on end.

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