MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Several South Carolina school districts are going virtual for another week due to some teachers having to quarantine after the Christmas break.
Some advocacy groups say the quarantine procedures highlight a bigger issue: a shortage of substitute teachers in the state.
Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, says there are variety of people that typically work as substitute teachers in the schools.
“A lot of them are retired folks that want a little extra income, they want a flexible schedule and they enjoy working with children,” East said. “There are people [who sub and it’s their] full-time job, that’s how they make a living, they substitute teach everyday. They usually find a school community they like.”
She says many substitute teachers are considered to be in a population most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Once hybrid learning began, many of them had to make the tough choice to not teach.
“A lot of them were our at-risk age bracket of people,” East said. “They don’t feel comfortable going into the face-to-face teaching right now to sub.”
Horry County substitute teacher Jean Read agrees.
Read has over 30 years of teaching experience in preschool, second and third grade levels. She became a sub for Horry County Schools in 2018.
Once the pandemic hit, schools went virtual and the need for subs wasn’t as much in demand. Read says the need changed once school districts implemented the hybrid model.
Like some subs, Read said she couldn’t return to the school grounds because of underlying health conditions. This makes her part of a population that’s vulnerable to the COVID-19 threat.
“My doctor advised me not to go in a public place such as a school,” Read said. “I have some minor underlying health conditions that could result in severe symptoms if I were to catch COVID-19. I have [taken] that advice and have not returned to work yet.”
She says at times, it’s been hard not being on the school grounds.
“It’s very hard,” Read said. “I’m primarily at one school so I had developed a bond with many of the children as well as the staff there. I also feel [some] guilt because I know how important it is to have good subs. Because of the pandemic, it has increased the need and I’m not able to do my part.”
Read says it’s critical that state leaders do more to address the shortages because it trickles down into a child’s educational learning environment. She added that in some classroom situations, subs would step up to the plate to ensure some teachers aren’t overburden with additional workloads, which includes circumstances when a teacher may have to quarantine.
“It puts more pressure on the teacher for more materials and preparations,” Read said. “So if we had the necessary number of subs, we could better meet the learning needs of the children.”
Read says part of the reason more subs are needed right now is due to the amount of teachers having to quarantine during the pandemic.
“If a teacher has been exposed, they have to quarantine and you need a sub to fill that classroom for ten days,” Read said. “There was already a shortage of subs prior to the pandemic so it has already [exhausted] an already existing problem.”
Read noted that she’s looking ahead to the day she can return to the school grounds as a sub safely.
“Right now, my plan is to get the vaccine and as soon as my doctor says it’s okay I plan to get back to subbing,” Read said. “It’s my understanding from the scientists and the medical community to continue to wear masks, and I will plan on doing that as well. And I would hope the school districts will continue to enforce that as well.”
Read says one of the things that state leaders could do to help attract more people to the substitute teaching sector is increase the pay and continuing to ensure the learning environment is safe.
East agrees. She says there also needs to be more respect for the profession.
“[More] respect for the substitute teachers,” East said. “To know [and understand] what [subs are] dealing with everyday. And for kids to take it serious and not make it a bad day for a substitute.”
The advocacy group president says South Carolina schools experienced a shortage of nearly 700 teachers at the start of the school year, so the need for subs is even that much greater, further stating there simply aren’t enough substitute teachers to step in and help.
“I don’t know that parents or the public realize when you have those vacancies, the children didn’t go away, you just don’t have a full-time teacher,” East said. “You shuffle people around to get the kids covered. So it ultimately has increased in class size because you don’t have teachers.”
She’s encouraging more people to take an interest in becoming a substitute teacher for their district to help alleviate the shortage. East says many people don’t realize that in South Carolina, they may qualify to be a substitute teacher.
“You [aren’t required] to have a four-year degree to be a substitute teacher in South Carolina,” East said. “You can usually be eighteen years or older and sign-up on a sub list through the personnel department at your district or you can go through a temporary company.”
East also addressed statements recently made by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster pushing for school districts to implement full-time face-to-face learning. This comes after numerous districts made the decision to temporarily return to virtual learning environments after the Winter break.
“My belief is where there is a will, there is a way,” McMaster said. “There are schools that have been open the whole time for face-to-face instruction. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
“If that’s what you think that we’re not being creative, I want you to sit down with a superintendent and a school board [members] and administrators teachers and lets talk through this,” East said. “Let you work in a school or visit a school one day and see what’s going on right now. We’re Zooming, we’re teaming, we’re doing all kinds of creative and innovative things to make sure our students learn right now. So I don’t think creativity is the problem. I think COVID is the problem. We have a pandemic, we have a virus. We have huge percentages of adults out on quarantine. The problem is the staffing to run the schools.”
McMaster has been pushing for five days of face-to-face learning in all districts. This includes some areas experiencing recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.