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Teachers In South Carolina May Lose Their Licenses If They Opt Out Due To COVID-19 Concerns


Two teachers in York County, South Carolina, face having their teaching licenses suspended after deciding not to finish out the school year because of concerns about the coronavirus.

Patrick Kelly, governmental affairs director for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, says hundreds of teachers have requested medical accommodations from district officials for themselves or out of concern for family members this year. He says many have resigned after being turned down.

But Kelly says a South Carolina law also gives districts the authority to suspend the license of teachers who opt out of their contracts at any point after they are signed annually in mid-May.

Patrick Kelly: As far back as this past summer, in July, our association was fearful of this, and we submitted a letter to the state Board of Education asking them not to suspend the license of any teacher that resigned as a result of documented medical concerns related to covered in South Carolina. A teacher that breaches their contract, meaning that they resign midyear, can have their district submit their license for action and suspension to the state board if they walk away midyear. Districts don't have to do that.

To date, no such suspension has taken place. But next week there will be two hearings before the state Board of Education of districts that are seeking to get a one-year suspension of a license of teachers that resigned as a result of medical concerns.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Tell me a little more about those two cases and the teachers.

Patrick Kelly
Palmetto State Teachers Association
Patrick Kelly

Kelly: These are teachers that wanted to continue teaching but had a health condition either for themselves or for someone in their home that they believe put them at heightened risk of COVID. And so, as the year progressed, especially with this surge in virus activity, they decided that it was no longer something, a risk that they were willing or able to take.

Glenn: And the hearings will be next week whether or not to suspend the licenses? For how long?

Kelly: Action for suspension by the state board typically is for a period of 12 months from the date of suspension. So, not only would that make these teachers ineligible to teach potentially in the spring if if the pandemic begins to fade, it would also carry forward into next school year — which effectively would prevent them from seeking employment in South Carolina schools for most, if not all of next school year, because fewer schools are looking to fill positions midyear.

Glenn: As the state association, do you have a role in this or will you be able to testify? Will you be able to attend? What actions are you planning?

Kelly: So, we've already written a letter to the state board. Our executive director testified to the state board in late summer and we testified again to the state board during their meeting Wednesday asking them not to take action against any teacher who resigns as a result of medical concerns. We do have full-time legal representation in the House and we will actively support and advocate within the hearing process for our members if they face that potential action.

Glenn: What kind of response have you had from the board at this point, if any?

Kelly: To date, we haven't had any response from the board, but we are optimistic. The simple reality is that South Carolina is already in a teaching shortage crisis. We didn't have enough teachers prior to the pandemic and that's getting even worse now. And the decision to suspend the license of a teacher who resigned due to medical concern for a year ultimately doesn't help anyone. It doesn't help the teacher. It doesn't help the district. They still have a vacancy. And most importantly, it hurts students because students are ill-served when we can't fill all our teaching needs in the state of South Carolina.

Glenn: Do other states do this? Is this something unique to South Carolina?

Kelly: I don't believe that it's unique to South Carolina because it does put significant strain on a school district to lose teaching staff midyear because it's hard to find teachers midyear. And there's plenty of research that shows that students do suffer from an achievement lens when they have teacher turnover midyear.

Glenn: And the key here is midyear, not those who opted out at the beginning of the year, but as midyear?

Kelly: It could be somebody at the beginning of the year. Teachers in South Carolina have to sign their contracts by early May, and the minute that that contract is signed, it is binding for a 12-month period. So a teacher that resigns any time within a 12 month contract period is potentially subject to the district seeking to suspend their license.

Patrick Kelly is director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. York County School officials said privacy laws prevent them from commenting because this is a personnel matter. The licensure hearing will be held Dec. 18.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.