GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) - South Carolina senators unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would bump educators and daycare providers up on the vaccine priority list to phase 1A.
The bill, known as Senate Bill 516, now heads to the House, and could reach Governor McMaster’s desk very soon. It would also mandate that the teachers who want to get the COVID-19 vaccine are vaccinated within 30 days of it being signed into law. This responsibility would fall to DHEC.
Lawmakers say the idea behind this is that, once teachers are vaccinated, all school districts in the state should offer 5 day per week in-person instruction. In other words, kids can get back into classrooms sooner, just like Governor McMaster has demanded in recent weeks.
The main concerns about the bill, which were debated at length Thursday afternoon and well into the evening, were twofold:
First, DHEC has said doing this would be very difficult on their current appointment scheduling system. And secondly, many are worried about what inserting teachers into the phase 1A mix could mean for seniors who have already scheduled vaccine appointments.
The concern surrounding those residents age 65 and older having their appointments cancelled or rescheduled because of changes a bill like this could bring is something that has led the Governor to voice his opposition to this bill in the past; that’s something groups like the AARP have applauded.
But in the end, Senate lawmakers said that this legislation was too important not to pass.
South Carolina Republican Senate Majority Leader and sponsor of Bill 516 Shane Massey says the current bill is something the state desperately needs, so its education system can begin the process of regaining the learning environment he and many others believe it has lost.
“And we all know we have lost a lot,” he told Senate colleagues during his remarks Tuesday.
“I am really concerned about promoting children to the next grade level," he went on to say, “when they have not really had the opportunity, or the in-classroom instruction, to have sufficiently mastered the current grade level."
He and other lawmakers who echoed him emphasized they believe the best way to get all kids back in-person is to vaccinate teachers, which this bill would instruct DHEC to do within 30 days of becoming law.
Massey and many senators also said Tuesday afternoon that waiting any longer for educators doesn’t make any sense at this stage in the game, with only a couple months left in the school year.
“If we can’t vaccinate them now, and get the children back in the classrooms now, there’s no need to cause a big uproar," Massey said. “If we don’t do it now, and put teachers in phase 1A, we might as well wait until June to vaccinate them. We could put them in phase 1C.”
He and other senators believe making a big deal about teacher vaccinations would be a moot point if they waited until phase 1B (which teachers are currently designated for and is supposed to get underway in the spring), and that doing so would only give those students who are currently being held back from full time in-person instruction due to coronavirus concerns a mere few weeks in the actual classroom.
“This would be a huge benefit to beginning that process of returning to normal," said Sandra Williams, Communications Director for Spartanburg School District 1.
Williams says that they as a school system don’t want to skip over any group in the vaccination line, but that they do also already have their vaccine plan in place.
“We have the numbers, we know what percentage to expect for each school district,” she said. "We know which staff have indicated they would like to receive the vaccine when it becomes available.”
Williams says her district is already coordinating with local hospital system Spartanburg Regional to get vaccine distribution in place, and that getting the vaccine would give their teachers, who are already back 5 days a week in-person at all grade levels, more peace of mind.
“We are having to do this because other folks won’t do their jobs," said Democratic senator Dick Harpooltian from Richland County, in reference to why the Senate voted unanimously 42-0 to pass Bill 516.
Harpooltian, like many SC Senate Democrats, doesn’t believe the bill is anywhere near the perfect solution. But he also believes their legislative body was backed into a corner and forced to take it upon themselves to get this done.
“I was talking about DHEC this past summer,” he explained in his remarks to Senate colleagues. “I’ve taken that podium and talked about their total lack of focus and effort in dealing with this pandemic, and not being prepared to deal with the distribution of this vaccine."
FOX Carolina did reach out to DHEC for comment during the Senate debate Tuesday afternoon, asking the agency if they believe their vaccine appointment scheduling system would be able to handle the changes this bill could bring.
FOX Carolina also asked the agency whether they knew at this point if they might have to reschedule or cancel appointments for seniors to accommodate/make room for educators mentioned in this bill should it pass--and if DHEC had a response to some of the strong criticisms from senators during the open debate over Bill 516.
So far, the agency has not responded.
Gov. Henry McMaster has said he would oppose plans to delay vaccination appointments for seniors because they are more likely to die from the virus.