Gov. McMaster pushes for schools to offer in-class instruction for S.C. students this fall

This comes despite rising case numbers of COVID-19 in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) — Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) is calling on school districts to allow students to come back to their classrooms this fall.

He told reporters that he instructed Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman to reject any reopening plans unless they give parents the choice to have their kids learn in the classroom or virtually.

A handful of school districts have already submitted reopening plans, though some, like Sumter, Colleton County, and Jasper County, have decided to start the year with distance learning.

“Try as we might, we know that virtual education is not as good for most children as face-to-face, in-class education. We must do it safely, we must do it carefully, but we must do it,” Gov. McMaster said.

Several state lawmakers say students are falling further and further behind the longer they are away from the classroom, saying face-to-face instruction is crucial for their educational health. Some cited that more than 10,000 students went unaccounted for when distance learning began in March, and others might be at risk of neglect or emotional decline if schools are not reopened.

“The most vulnerable children in South Carolina will suffer the greatest if we do not reopen. They’ll suffer the greatest from a health standpoint, they’ll suffer from physical health standpoint, from a mental health standpoint, from an economic health standpoint, and from an educational health standpoint. They will suffer the greatest,” said Sen. Greg Hembree (R-Horry Co.), the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler echoed the concerns of several educators across the state about reopening too early, saying in part:

South Carolina’s schools should only be opened when we know for certain it is safe for our students, teachers, and everyone who works in our education system to return. We know, based on testing data provided by DHEC every day, that their safety cannot be assured at this point.”

Recent DHEC data of community spread shows that 45 of 46 counties showed “high” disease activity, with one (Marlboro County) showing “medium” activity. Based on these guidelines, health experts say all of these school districts should start the year with virtual learning until virus numbers go down.

Some teaching organizations, like the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association, the South Carolina Education Association, and SC for Ed, released statements opposing the Governor’s take on education, saying teachers wold be putting themselves at risk if they came back into the classroom during a pandemic.

Chuck Saylors, the President of the South Carolina School Board Association and a member of the “accelerate ED” Task Force, released a statement saying:

“We appreciate the Governor expressing recommendations rather than mandates, and while school boards overwhelmingly support returning to the normal operations of schools, their emphasis is on the safety of students, teachers and staff.

As the stewards of public schools, who are accountable to the citizens in their communities, school board members, with their superintendents, are carefully weighing health and safety information and guidance at the state and federal level, with a focus on disease activity ratings in their local counties, to make the best decision for the students and families in their communities.

School board members have been consistent in advocating that recommendations from the state level should include a range of options, not universal mandates, in recognition of every districts’ differing needs of students, teachers and staff, differing infrastructures and differing resources.

The decision of when and how to open schools is best made at the local level.”

Superintendent Spearman, who was not at Wednesday’s press conference, said in a statement that she agrees with the Governor that parents should have the option to either send their children to school or have them learn virtually. However, she also said:

“We can not, however, turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world. School leaders, in consultation with public health experts, are best positioned to determine how in-person operations should be carried out to fit the needs of their local communities. I remain committed to supporting them in this endeavor and will only approve those plans that offer high quality options and keep safety as their top priority.”

Greenville County Schools Superintendent W. Burke Royster also released a statement, saying the Governor and his political allies are disregarding public health guidance in order to have schools reopen. He says if all the students in his district return at the same time, his schools would not have space to enforce proper social distancing guidelines.

Echoing statements he made during a press conference July 10, the Governor said part of the reason students should be back in school is that parents can go to back to work.

“Parents are looking to our schools, parents pay taxes for the schools, the Constitution provides for schools. We must see that the children have these schools available,” Gov. McMaster said. 

SC for Ed polled thousands of educators and school support staff members across the state. The survey found that 3,409 of the participants are at high-risk and 5,129 have a condition listed by the CDC as being a risk factor when returning to schools.

Earlier this year, the “accelerate ED” Task Force, which was made up of teachers, administrators, and Department of Education staff, recommended that school districts ultimately decide how to carry out the 2020-21 school year. Several are still having discussions and planning how the year will proceed.

As of Wednesday, DHEC has reported 62,071 cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina, with at least 984 deaths.

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