Public school teachers in South Carolina seem to be taking after their counterparts in Kentucky in a mass sick-out demonstration on May 1.
The date of the planned sick-out may not be coincidental, as May 1 is observed around the world as May Day, or International Workers’ Day.
According to the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, several hundred teachers from across the Palmetto State will converge on the state capitol in Columbia on Wednesday, May 1, to demand the legislature meet their demands for higher wages, smaller classroom sizes, and more funding for K-12 public education — including more funding for mental health professionals to serve as school counselors. Teacher group SC for Ed is organizing the strike under the hashtag #AllOutMay1.
Special education teacher Robin Bowman, who is a 20-year veteran educator, told the Post and Courier that she was participating in the sick-out strictly for the benefit of her students, despite criticism that she’s leaving the classroom to demonstrate at the state capitol.
“People may become critical and say, ‘You’re leaving your children in the classroom, how can you do that?’ And my response to that is, ‘How can I not do this?’ ” Bowman said. “This is the most I can do because this is for them. If I don’t, we may soon see a time when there is no one to step into my place for them some day.”
The sick-out announcement comes on the heels of the public resignation of 28-year-old teacher Sariah McCall, whose resignation letter to her school superintendent was published in The Washington Post. McCall quoted the adage, “A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others.”
In an email to The Washington Post, McCall laid out her rigorous schedule, which, in addition to teaching multiple subjects, she also described her responsibilities in making sure children all got on the bus safely, writing summaries of each student’s performance in each subject on each report card, and how, despite “contract time” officially ending at 3, she would often remain at school until at least 5 PM doing necessary upkeep, then be up all night at home preparing for the next day’s lesson.
“Please understand that this has nothing to do with my children,” McCall wrote in her resignation letter. “I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect fit for my class, administrator, and school. I thought I had found my forever school. In fact, the only things keeping me from resigning until now were the love I have for my students, the love I have for the act of teaching, and the heavy guilt I feel for my children being negatively impacted by this in any way: emotionally or academically. However, I cannot set myself on fire to keep someone else warm.”
“The systemic abuse and neglect of educators and other public service workers in the state of South Carolina should have its citizens so enraged. The unrealistic demands and all-consuming nature of the profession are not sustainable. I am still a human being,” she continued. “There was no time to be a functioning human being and give this job all the attention and love it deserves… It is unrealistic to expect this much from people. We’re teachers, but we’re still people.”
The “sick-out” demonstration is similar to what teachers in Kentucky have been doing since 2018, when teachers’ strikes spread from West Virginia all the way to Arizona, and many other states. Because Kentucky prohibits public employees from going on strike, teachers organized a “sick-out” in which educators used one of their allotted sick days to demonstrate at the capitol building. Technically, South Carolina public employees have the right to strike, though a court ruling in 2000 interpreted that public employees were not allowed to strike, since they were prohibited from collective bargaining.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) has refused to say whether or not teachers who participated in recent “sick-out” protests would be punished. However, Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has suggested districts penalize teachers who call in sick to protest, and recently reminded educators in a letter that there is a $1,000 fine for any public employee who participates in an illegal work stoppage.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.