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S.C. superintendent pauses to reflect: ‘Everyone is exhausted’

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 3:18 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman says she is ready to look ahead to the new school year, which she hopes will look much closer to normal.

This time last year, that’s what parents and students were hoping for as the COVID-19 pandemic was only beginning to take hold. Instead, the pandemic forced hard choices, including whether students would learn in-person or virtually, through learning pods or on their own.

Some students, meanwhile, were left scrambling just to be able to connect to the internet.

Spearman said decisions on masking, social distancing, classroom sizes and other COVID-19-related guidelines will be made at the district level. But schools will be doing all they can to get students back on track.

“People need to calm down,” she says. “We’ve been through a lot. All of us.”

Over the past year, Spearman had public disagreements with Gov. Henry McMaster, faced constant questions about teacher vaccinations and has even been harassed online along with other educators, all while trying to lead and guide 80 school districts through a pandemic.

“Everyone is exhausted. It’s been a rough year,” she says. “Let’s pat people on the back and thank them. It may not have been ideal, but I just appreciate everything the teachers have done and I wish those folks who are really going to an uncivil level of talking to teachers or sending a social media message, it’s wrong.”

Spearman is focusing on the school year ahead, starting with inviting every student who wants summer learning to take it. She says students are about two to four months behind in reading and math, but she hopes summer learning does more than catch them up academically.

“We’ve got to get our students back to knowing and enjoying their friends as well,” she says.

But, she notes, students aren’t the only ones who are feeling burned out. She says a lot of teachers are as well and believes the teacher shortage will only get worse.

“I am concerned,” she admits. “When I speak to folks at higher ed in colleges, they say we are getting fewer and fewer candidates.”

After a year of constant changes, what fall looks like, she says, will be up to the districts.

“I don’t foresee and I do not plan to offer any requirements from this office,” she says. “Masks will be left up locally, plexiglass, all of those things.

In some cases, however, getting students back on track won’t be the only challenge.

“One thing we know: Our A and B students have done pretty well; they’ve stayed on track,” Spearman says. “Our C, D and sometimes F students have almost doubled.”

Educators will have to find ways to bring them back to the classroom.

“We need to re-engage those students,” she admits. “Many of them have gotten jobs. We need to work with them. Many of them have had to get jobs.”

That, she says, includes students at every level.

“How many students, when they enter a 5-year-old kindergarten are ready? In a traditional year in South Carolina, it’s about 37%. This year, it’s about 27%. We lost 10 points,” she says.

One silver lining she sees is that every student learned a skill that’s difficult to teach in just a classroom.

“We teach content, we teach skills, and we teach character, and when I think about this pandemic, I think the number one thing we’ve done is built character,” she says. “We have to be stronger people than we were a year and a half ago. I hope it is for our students. I pray it is for me.”

Spearman also said the Department of Education is looking to use some extra federal funds to enhance their partnerships with state mental health agencies, hoping to provide additional mental health counseling this fall.

For parents wondering if their child needs extra help this summer, Spearman says all kids that are falling behind should have already received a letter inviting them to a summer learning program by now.

When asked how she would grade how she lead the state through this tumultuous time, Spearman said she gives herself a A+ for effort and a B for performance.

“There are a few things I would probably do a bit differently, but in the moment I did the best I could,” she said.

She also praised teachers for their hard work and encouraged young people interested in teaching to pursue the profession.

“If you want to change the world and you want to have a lifelong impact on folks, teaching is the best way to do that,” she said.

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