COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Tuesday, the SC Education Association (SCEA), other education advocates, and pediatric and public health experts held a press conference to issue a joint statement. All agencies believe students need to be learning in schools, but also wear a mask to help protect children and slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
"What students are getting right now is a disruptive, inconsistent learning model that is hard on teachers," said Patrick Kelly, member of Palmetto State Teachers Association. "It is hard on students, and it is hard on families.
Kelly said masks have been proven to slow the spread of COVID-19 and students need to wear them while they are learning face-to-face.
"You cannot be pro-student learning and anti-public health guidance right now. Those are incompatible," Kelly said. "If you are in favor of student learning and student academic growth, you must be in favor of following public health recommendations from our medical professionals."
Members from the SCEA, SC Parent and Teacher Association (SCPTA), SC Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (SCAAP), SC Association for School Nurses (SCASN), and the Palmetto State Teachers Association (PSTA), and Lexington School District One Superintendent Dr. Greg Little were in attendance on Tuesday.
All the associations are calling for the state's General Assembly to meet for a special session to repeal the state proviso that bands mask mandates in schools. The agencies are asking for lawmakers to return the decision-making authority over face mask requirements to local school districts.
According to the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), more than 21,000 students have contracted COVID-19 this school year. DHEC is also reporting at least 86,000 students missing in-person learning opportunities due to close contact quarantine protocols.
"We need help, our teachers need help," said Kathy Maness, Executive Director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
Mannes said local school boards need to be able to make the decision that is best for their district.
"Children are dying, children are losing very important structural time, and our teachers need to be able to teach face-to-face," Maness said. "The General Assembly is not a super school board. They need to leave that decision up to local elected officials who know what's best for their communities so that our students can stay in the classroom, so that they can learn, so that our teachers can teach."
Maness said numerous teachers have resigned or asked how they can get out of their contract as a result of the ongoing stress and demands associated with responding to the pandemic.
"That type of level is not sustainable," said SCASN member Tricia Ulch. "So, my concern is that you’re going to see nurses, school nurses leave the profession."
Ulch said right now, nurses are being given more work with rising COVID cases, on top of their normal assigned duties.
"They have their normal duties — trying to do immunization audits trying to health care plans, those types of things but yet, that's taking a backseat, where they're having to prioritize positive cases contact trace quarantine and it's overwhelming," Ulch told News 19.
Amy Wood, who is the past president of SCASN, said students depend on school nurses in order to learn in schools.
"We still have students every day that rely on the school nurse to provide medications or treatments to allow them to be able to attend in person," Wood said. "Students with diabetes still need to have their carbs calculated and their insulin administered. We have students that have tube feedings that need to be done every day, and those things don't stop."
Wood said with increasing cases, school districts and hospitals are having to compete against each other for nurses.
"They can offer a lot of things that schools are unable to offer to nurses," Wood said. "And so we’re now competing with a group that needs nurses just like we do. It's not like they're just trying to bolster their ranks, they have to meet the demand with the pandemic as well. When we lose nurses, I think what a lot of districts will say, they are having troubles finding candidates to replace them, just because the competition is just to fierce right now with nurses."
Maness said mask wearing is the answer to keep our students in school and COVID cases down.
"I’m so sorry that this has become so politicized." Maness told News 19. "Because what’s best for kids should not be a Republican or Democrat problem. It is a South Carolina problem, and we need to do what we can do to keep our students safe, to keep our students healthy, and to keep our students in the classroom."