McMaster, SC educators at odds over reopening schools

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and fellow Republican leaders of the House and Senate put their considerable power together on Wednesday to demand that schools across the state open five days a week for face-to-face instruction, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

"People must go to work, schools must have in-class, face-to-face teaching so these children do not fall behind," McMaster said, surrounded by a half-dozen lawmakers and health officials. Not a single education official outside his administration was present, including the state's top education official, a Republican elected separately.

McMaster said districts that don't follow his request could face unspecified repercussions when lawmakers return for a September special session.

Teachers and school districts immediately criticized the governor and legislative leaders, saying that while they agree in-person learning is best, there is no sign COVID-19 is slowing down and it is too early to have children in class every weekday.

"We hope that our state leaders will take the steps necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our state," said Patrick Kelly, a spokesman for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "Once we achieve that goal, a return to in-person instruction is what is best for students and desired by teachers. Until that time, such an action needlessly endangers the health of our state's most precious resource: our children."

Independently elected state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said she won't mandate the governor's request, but is telling districts they must give parents the option to put their kids in classrooms at least one day a week — as long as their safety can be assured.

"You have to put in one day a week so you can put eyes on them," Spearman said by phone after the governor spoke. She said she worries about tens of thousands of students who never signed in for virtual work or picked up assignments after the March shutdown of schools.

COVID-19 cases in South Carolina continue to spike. For nearly a month, the state has placed fourth or worse in new confirmed cases on a national list that has been adjusted for population.

The number of people in the hospital with the disease hit a new high Wednesday, with 1,560 patients, and the seven-day average of deaths has risen from eight to more than 21 over the past three weeks.

On Wednesday, the state marked another day in which more than 20% of tests came back positive for the virus. Experts have said that percentage needs to be closer to 5% to consider reopening places where groups gather.

McMaster did suggest that school districts wait until the last possible day under the law before they open, which is the Tuesday after Labor Day, or Sept. 8. Starting that late, however, will make it hard to wrap up the first semester before Christmas, and could extend the school year well into June.

Legislative leaders promised to do whatever is needed to get protective equipment to schools. South Carolina has had a teacher shortage recently, and leaders have said it is made worse because many teachers have reached or are nearing retirement age.

A number of districts, especially the larger ones, say they can't keep children safely apart on buses or in schools if they attend school five days a week.

The state's largest district in Greenville County said it was impossible to bring a large number of students back while following the health and safety protocols requested by the governor. For example, it would take six hours just to get all students to school if buses were only at 50% capacity as recommended, Superintendent W. Burke Royster said.

"As a state, we are deeply divided between those who believe in a 'return-to-school at all costs' platform and those who recognize that fully re-opening schools could endanger our students, employees, and communities, and exacerbate the spread of the virus," Royster said in a statement. "Lost in all of this is the voice of moderation."

Lawmakers said in-person school is most important for children whose parents didn't push them during virtual learning after schools shut in March. They promised also to work to expand broadband internet to rural parts of the state with no high-speed way to get online.

State Sen. Greg Hembree said the state spends nearly $15,000 a year on each student and "right now, they're just not getting anything for it."

"The adults will have to work harder to serve the children, which is their chosen profession and really, their responsibility," said Hembree, a Republican from Horry County and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.