COLUMBIA — Amid the push to vaccinate South Carolina's teachers before in-person learning can fully resume, the local officials deciding how their schools operate are converging on Hilton Head Island for their own face-to-face educational conference.
About 300 school board members and superintendents from across the state are attending the South Carolina School Boards Association's annual, four-day convention starting Feb. 18, said the association's director, Scott Price.
Scaled down to comply with safety protocols, this year's convention at beachfront Hilton Head Marriott comes with a mask mandate, temperature screenings and social distancing. Hall exhibitors have been eliminated.
And all student performances will be streamed in by video. Featured groups include student choirs from Cayce, Johnsonville and Fairfield County, the Williston-Elko drumline and the Pelion High orchestra, according to the program.
"It's going to look completely different than it normally does," Price said.
Asked how he would respond to critics who would question why school leaders are meeting in person when many districts are setting conditions to do the same for students, Price said, "The optics are what they are."
It's the association's first fully in-person conference since its convention a year ago, following an online-only one in August and a hybrid meeting in December.
"We're trying to provide much-needed professional development for our members in a safe manner," Price said. "We've taken a number of steps to ensure the safety of attendees and our staff."
The event received approval Jan. 14 from the state Commerce Department as meeting COVID-19 protocols for gatherings of more than 250 people. The cost is $225 for the conference and $146 nightly for the hotel.
The organization declined to give a registration list, so which school districts the attendees are coming from is unknown, other than those listed in the program.
Currently, about 55 percent of the state's 1,266 public schools offer a full week of face-to-face learning. The bulk of the rest offer a weekly mix of in-person and online learning. The last two districts to bring any students back, rural Lee and Calhoun counties, recently allowed some in-person learning in the early grades.
Lawmakers pushing districts to offer a full week in the classroom say they hope attending school board members make decisions back home allowing students to learn in person.
"I just hope they know what they're doing and being safe and understand the optics with some districts not meeting person to person," said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. "The potential to send mixed messages definitely exists."
The Calhoun County Democrat authored a proposal to make K-12 employees eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in exchange for requiring every district to offer families full weeks in the classroom. In the first hearing Feb. 16 on that measure and a similar one passed by the Senate, dozens of advocates for other workers and medically at-risk residents asked to be prioritized for shots too. A second hearing is scheduled for next week.
"If it's safe for the school board members to gather in those numbers, certainly it's safe for teachers to be in classrooms," said Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-Little River.
Advocating for the legislation to bump K-12 employees into the first phase for COVID-19 vaccinations, Richland Two School Board member Amelia McKie said it's the local officials who must weigh what's best for students, staff and their families on "when it's absolutely safe to fully reopen schools."
"The one thing we at the local level know will work is for teachers, school staff and administrators to be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine," she told the House panel, representing the School Boards Association as a member of its governing board.
The convention begins at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 18 with a welcome from Richland One Chairman Jamie Devine, the association's president-elect, and concludes at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 21. Speakers include former state Rep. Anton Gunn, a former official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, Fairfield County Superintendent J.R. Green, and state Teacher of the Year Sarah Gams.