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SC Superintendent of Education’s final year comes with hope and concerns

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 10:03 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s top educator has one more year left in office after announcing in October that she will not seek a third term, but the 12 months between now and Superintendent Molly Spearman’s retirement are not projected to be easy.

Spearman’s last year in office will include combatting the highly-transmittable omicron variant of COVID-19, assisting schools facing instances and threats of violence, and supporting students and teachers with mental health issues.

But, she does have hope.

That hope for 2022 stems from her belief in South Carolina’s educators and in part her insistence that the large amounts of federal money flowing to districts can be used to curb learning loss while also keeping kids safe.

“The focus right now is again on keeping students in school face-to-face, so obviously they need to spend their money on any supplies they need,” Spearman said. “Then they need to focus on learning loss and helping students accelerate their learning: hiring additional tutors, giving incentives for teachers to work extra hours whether that is after school, [or]on Saturday to help students. Our students really struggle over the COVID time. Virtual learning worked well for some, but for most students, it wasn’t a good option so we have a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time.”

Spearman is glad DHEC guidance supports a shorter isolation time for people exposed to COVID, which will get students back to the class faster. In addition, she is happy decisions on masking can be made at the local level.

But the Superintendent of Education also recognizes the toll the past years have had on students and is asking schools to care for children’s hearts and minds.

“One of the things that we are working on is a pilot program in our middle schools. Where teachers are taking an hour a week just to stop and sit down with students and give them a chance to talk to each other. As I talk to principals around the state, some of them see this as the most important thing they are doing…You have to get to the heart of the students and make them in the right frame of mind before they learn,” she said.

To make sure the education in the state is at a high quality and to combat the continuous teacher shortage, Spearman says teachers need more financial and emotional support.

Her team is asking the state lawmakers to boost teacher compensation during the next legislative term by allocating a minimum of $162 million for a two percent pay increase, give funds to improve bus driver salaries, and continue to support improving school infrastructure in rural communities.

According to the South Carolina Educator Supply and Demand Report from November, more than 1,000 teaching and staff positions were still vacant.

“I think teachers need to feel the support that they deserve. That can come from salary, it comes from the community, it can come from the administration of the school involving teachers in leadership, shared leadership,” Spearman said.

The superintendent says the vacancies aren’t just at the teacher level; anecdotally, she is seeing a lot of principals and district superintendents leave their posts and says her team is doing “everything we can” to encourage them to stay.

She admits that her retirement can be seen as being part of that trend, but says the difference is she is not leaving because of the work but her desire to be with family.

“I am very, very concerned people are tired, it’s been very difficult, not just in education but we are seeing it in all the workforce,” she said.

Teacher advocates also say shootings like what happened in Orangeburg in August and frequent threats have them concerned about safety, which is adding to teacher exhaustion and burnout.

Spearman said she shares those concerns about safety and says it is her department’s top priority.

To combat those threats she is focusing on student mental health and said she is working with districts and law enforcement officials to create a central hub where information on school threats can be collected and disseminated to the community.

Her vision is a one-stop-shop for school safety.

“One of the things that we are working on school safety is a better more collaborative system, pulling everything from school safety together in one place… we are looking to use our state ESSER funding working with SLED, public safety, and all the school resource officers around the state to build a center where all that work will be done very collaborative,” Spearman explained.

However, Spearman’s time as superintendent has not been without conflict.

In 2019, an estimated 10,000 people participated in the #AllOutMay1 teacher’s rally where teachers and educators protested outside of the State House asking for more lawmaker support.

At the time protestors with SC for ED were chanting “Where’s Molly? Where’s Molly?”. Spearman had announced before that day that she did not support teachers leaving the classroom, but did support teachers advocating for reform.

Most recently, Spearman’s views on mask mandates and other COVID safety protocols put her in conflict with Gov. Henry McMaster. She was vocal about her opposition to the temporary state law restricting mask mandates in schools and the Governor supported it.

Spearman’s last day in office is January 11, 2023 and she says she looks forward to spending more time in Saluda and around family.

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