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Senate: Prioritize vaccines for teachers; Ott says children ‘need to be in the classroom’

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday for a proposal that would make all teachers and other critical school staff — along with daycare workers — eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

The resolution also would require all school districts to offer students in-person classes five days a week immediately after spring break, even if teachers aren't fully vaccinated by then.

“We either vaccinate the teachers now, or we don’t need to vaccinate them 'til June,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said.

Teacher groups say educators must get vaccinated soon because already low staffing levels in schools are being exacerbated by the pandemic, with staffers out on medical leave or quarantined. That makes it hard for schools to maintain in-person learning options. Currently, teachers are grouped with other frontline essential workers in Phase 1B of the state’s plan; the proposal would move them to 1A.

Some lawmakers in the House, including Rep. Russell Ott, have introduced a separate resolution that would move teachers up to Phase 1A and instruct schools to reopen five days a week within 28 days.

“Our children need to be in the classroom,” Ott said.

“With a vaccine now available, teachers, who have sacrificed and worked extremely hard to continue instruction throughout this pandemic, need to be at the front of the line,” the St. Matthews Democrat said.

Senators struggled over how to slot teachers into the state’s coronavirus vaccine plan without pitting them against senior citizens also clamoring for the shots.

Thousands of seniors are still on vaccine waitlists as others have struggled to navigate online appointment systems. The state is still in Phase 1A of its vaccine plan, which includes health care workers and people ages 70 and older. About 1.3 million people are eligible in the current phase.

Lawmakers considered putting teachers ahead of all seniors temporarily to get two full months of in-person learning this spring.

Placing teachers ahead of the line would lead vaccine providers to cancel as many as thousands of appointments already scheduled for seniors, said Sen. Tom Davis, of retiree-heavy Beaufort. It would be unfair for seniors to navigate the state’s “Kafka-esque” process to secure an appointment only to have it canceled later, he added.

Davis suggested designating the week of March 15 through 22 to vaccinate teachers, with a second week in April for second doses. That's based on information he received from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“There’s going to be more disruption. There’s going to be more confusion,” Davis said.

Massey said such a solution addressed the “political problem” of putting teachers ahead of seniors, but not the “practical problem” of getting children into schools faster.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has previously opposed the plan, has said that moving teachers ahead of seniors in the vaccine line would be “unethical, immoral and absolutely unacceptable" as older people are more likely to die from the virus.

“Breaking faith by slowing down, disrupting, cancelling, or delaying any senior's vaccination shot is a bad idea with deadly consequences,” he tweeted Tuesday evening. “I cannot — and will not — allow their lives to be jeopardized.”

The governor could still veto the proposal, but the General Assembly could override any veto by a two-thirds vote.

More than half of the state's school districts are operating on schedules that combine in-person and online classes, according to the South Carolina Department of Education.

A survey the department asked school districts to conduct last week found roughly 57% of school employees — or 70,000 people — would get the vaccine if provided immediately.

The state has received a total of 970,250 vaccine doses and administered 548,214 of those, according to DHEC.

The health department opened up vaccination appointments for people between 65 and 69 on Monday, leading to a new surge of demand for the shots, providers said. Previously, people 70 and older have been eligible for the vaccine since mid-January.

A few hospitals say they're already seeing fewer doses in their regular shipments. The state's largest health system, Prisma Health, said it canceled some appointments and paused walk-ins after receiving fewer doses than expected Monday.

The T&D contributed to this report.

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