Plan to prioritize SC teacher vaccinations stalls, as DHEC says it could hurt seniors

Zak Koeske
·7 min read

A legislative effort to prioritize South Carolina teachers for COVID-19 vaccinations has stalled in the House and may be dead after failing to advance out of committee again Tuesday.

“House inaction today is essentially the ballgame,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey tweeted after the House Ways and Means Healthcare subcommittee adjourned Tuesday without taking action for what its chairman said was the lack of a “solid plan” to vaccinate teachers and school support staff.

Massey, who has squared off with Gov. Henry McMaster over the need to prioritize teacher vaccinations and earlier this month introduced a resolution to do so, said there was likely no longer enough time to enact such a plan.

“Even if House agreed later to prioritize teachers, there won’t be enough time to offer vaccines and get kids back in school 5 days/week for meaningful instruction and learning this school year,” Massey tweeted Tuesday.

Massey’s plan to move teachers, school support staff and daycare workers to Phase 1a of the state’s vaccine distribution plan and offer them the opportunity to be fully vaccinated within 30 days passed unanimously in the state Senate two weeks ago, but has failed to gain traction in the House.

Massey’s bill, which aims both to alleviate the fears teachers have about returning to the classroom and to mitigate quarantine-induced staffing shortages, would require all districts in the state to offer five-day, in-person classroom instruction no later than the Monday following districts’ spring breaks, which for many is April 12.

The push to get more teachers and students back in the classroom comes as summer break rapidly approaches. Even if the bill were to pass immediately and schools were to reopen on its timeline, only 10 weeks would remain in the school year for in-person instruction before the end of the school year.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford has described the process of lawmakers deciding which populations of South Carolinians to prioritize for the vaccine as a modern-day “Hunger Games,” a reference to the popular series of dystopian novels in which children must fight for survival in a televised death match.

He said the House panel was not standing in the way of teachers getting vaccinated and criticized the Senate for sending over a bill without thinking through how it would be implemented.

“We keep looking for the plan, but the plan can’t be a plan to fail,” Rutherford said. “This just looks like the Senate sent us this over so we can talk about it, but in reality they didn’t send any more tools, any more vaccinations, any more sites.”

He told state schools chief Molly Spearman, who testified Tuesday in support of prioritizing teachers and school personnel, that even if educators were moved to Phase 1a there was not enough vaccine to ensure they could be vaccinated in time to return to the classroom before the end of the school year.

“I couldn’t help you even if I tried, because there’s simply not enough,” Rutherford said. “And I haven’t heard yet what the plan is for there to be enough, so that teachers can feel confident that when you say ‘Go,’ they can go get ‘em.”

State health director Edward Simmer, who also testified before the House panel, concurred that pushing teachers to Phase 1a would be unlikely to significantly hasten their timeline for vaccination, and said setting aside two weeks of doses to vaccinate only teachers — as the Senate had discussed — could actually hurt seniors.

“We estimate we’d have an extra over 400 hospitalizations among seniors just by that two-week delay, an extra 3,500 cases amongst our seniors because of that two-week delay,” Simmer said. ”We actually did the analysis. That’s a lot of people in the hospital, ill, and we really want to avoid that.”

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s position is that South Carolinians at the greatest risk of severe complications from COVID-19, namely seniors 65 and older, should be prioritized for the state’s limited number of vaccine doses until demand among that group begins to wane.

“Let’s get the highest risk folks taken care of first. And then we can move on to the teachers and other folks in 1b, who also have a high need for vaccine,” Simmer said. “I would love to vaccinate them today, if I had the vaccine to do it, but I just don’t.”

He said the agency would move to Phase 1b, which includes an estimated 570,000 teachers, law enforcement and corrections personnel, firefighters, postal workers, grocery store workers and other “frontline essential workers,” once demand for vaccination appointments eases.

The exact date will depend on a number of factors, but DHEC currently pegs the transition to occur in mid-to-late March.

“Once we’re not filling appointments with 1a, we’re not going to let a single appointment go wasted, we’re not going to let a single dose of vaccine go wasted,” Simmer said. “So as soon as we have open appointments, we’re going to put 1b folks in there, and that certainly includes the teachers.”

As of Wednesday, South Carolina has vaccinated about 560,000 of the estimated 1.3 million South Carolinians who comprise Phase 1a.

The supply of vaccine the state gets from the federal government has increased considerably over the past month and is expected to increase further next week, but remains insufficient to meet the incredible demand for doses, DHEC said.

“We estimate we’re at least 2 to 3 weeks away from having open appointments because there’s still that many seniors in line who want this vaccine and can’t get it right now because we don’t have enough,” Simmer said.

The Senate plan to move teachers, daycare workers and school support staff to Phase 1a would add nearly 200,000 people to the group, effectively delaying the transition to Phase 1b for roughly 2-3 weeks, he said.

Simmer said he supports vaccinating teachers against COVID-19 as soon as possible, but believes schools can reopen safely without educators being vaccinated, as long as safety precautions are taken.

Spearman and McMaster have said the same thing, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and studies, including one in Charleston County, that found COVID-19 transmission in schools was minimal.

“Schools can operate safely. We’ve proven that, we’ve learned that,” Spearman said Tuesday. “Wear your mask, wash your hands, stay apart, it works.”

She said she’d been pushing schools to return to five days, in-person instruction for some time, but that some districts, especially in African American communities, had been resistant.

“I understood that and I still understand the fear, because the community has been hit harder,” Spearman said. “But it’s gotten to the point now where they need to come back to school. We need to offer face-to-face.”

Roughly 690 of the state’s 1,266 schools currently offer five-day, in-person instruction, she said.

The vast majority of the rest offer some form of hybrid model, with time split between classroom and virtual learning. Only 20 or so districts in the state still operate entirely remotely.

If lawmakers were eventually to prioritize vaccinations for educators, Spearman said the department would be ready to ensure the roughly 60% of teachers and support staff who have expressed a desire to be inoculated are stuck in a timely and efficient fashion.

Every district in the state has submitted comprehensive vaccination plans to the Department of Education within the past couple weeks, she said.

“We can tell you who their provider is, how they’re going to operate, is it going to be done on site at the school, are the school nurses going to participate, who’s giving the vaccine,” Spearman said. “All of that detailed information for the district plans, that has been completed. We have that now, so we’re ready.”