HCS chairman says S.C. disease experts should guide decision on returning to schools

Updated: Jul. 15, 2020 at 7:36 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WMBF) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has a message for school districts – present a plan that includes the option for in-person instruction for students five days a week.

During a news conference Wednesday morning, McMaster said he wants the school districts to give parents the choice between face-to-face instruction or virtual instruction for the 2020-2021 school year.

“It must be their choice, but we must have our schools available,” he said.

The governor wants school districts to get those plans to the state Department of Education for approval by Friday, July 17.

McMaster said he’s instructed State Superintendent Molly Spearman, who was not present for Wednesday’s briefing, to not approve any plans that don’t include the option for in-person instruction or virtual learning.

RELATED STORY | SC state superintendent disagrees with governor on plan to reopen schools

School districts should consider Sept. 8 as the date to reopen the schools, according to McMaster. He said that will give the districts time to get their plans together and present them to parents so they can make the decision whether to send students back to school or continue distance learning.

McMaster stressed that some students living in rural communities don’t have access to broadband capabilities to continue virtual learning. He said all children, “regardless of their zip code,” must have the opportunity for in-person instruction.

The governor added that over 10,000 students across the state have been unaccounted for since school closures across S.C.

RELATED COVERAGE | SC schools report more than 16,000 students have been unaccounted for since statewide school closures

Sen. Greg Hembree, who represents Horry County and is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the virtual learning done in the spring gets an “A+ for effort,” but a D- in results.

According to Hembree, statistics show that students have lost a complete year in mathematics, and a complete semester in English.

“It’s not worked. That’s the bottom line, it’s just not worked for many, many of our students,” he said.

Some educational organizations across the state were not in support of McMaster’s push for in-person learning.

The Palmetto State Teachers Association said it “categorically opposes Governor McMaster’s push for all school districts in South Carolina to operate in-person instruction, five days a week, without regard for the status of the coronavirus pandemic when schools are scheduled to resume.”

A full statement from the PSTA can be seen read below:

The group SC for Ed said it is “saddened, disappointed, and appalled by today’s careless and dangerous statements on the part of Governor McMaster.”

That full statement from SC for Ed can be read below:

Horry County area representative for SC for ED Kendra Pennington spoke with WMBF News about how this move from the governor frustrates their organization.

“I think what’s been most discouraging to other teachers and SC for ED is that we’ve been constantly talking about the student’s passing on the virus to other students but we’re not really saying anything about the teachers. A lot of people are saying younger students, younger children don’t really carry the disease but if they do they jump back from it a lot easier but we also have teachers who are elderly, who are immuno-compromised,” she said.

She added that she knows virtual learning has a lot of weaknesses which McMaster mentioned, but a return to the classroom now doesn’t mean students will do completely fine when adapting in-person learning for social distancing measures.

“But we can also say we don’t know how effective education will be if we go back to school face-to-face right now and followed the CDC and DHEC guidelines for six feet apart, a mask on, there will be no group work, there will be no rotations,” she said. “I think just going back face-to-face, five days a week, it’s just it’s not smart. And like so many people have said, we shut down schools when the numbers were nowhere near where they are now and now they’re worse and we’re deciding that we should go back? It’s discouraging we don’t feel like we’re being listened to,” Pennington said.

The governor’s press conference comes as many school districts across the state present plans on how to safely welcome students and teachers back into the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many districts are also deciding on whether to push back school start dates in order to give teachers and staff more time to safely prepare classrooms. On Monday, the Horry County School Board and the Darlington County School Board voted to push the school start date back to Sept. 8.

“As Chairman of the Horry County Board of Education, I have promised the parents of our county’s children that I am ready to send our students back to school for face-to-face instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson said in a statement sent Wednesday.

Richardson noted that it is important to use the state’s disease experts to “guide our decision making for when and how we return our students and employees to schools.” His full statement is below:

“As Chairman of the Horry County Board of Education, I have promised the parents of our county’s children that I am ready to send our students back to school for face-to-face instruction as soon as it is safe to do so. This past Monday night, Dr. Maxey and his staff shared with our school board the system developed by DHEC for determining the spread of COVID-19 in each county. School districts use this information to decide whether to return students to school full-time, part-time, or to serve them through distance learning. Speaking for myself, and not on behalf of the board, I believe it is important to use our state’s disease experts to guide our decision making for when and how we return our students and employees to schools. I intend to recommend to our board that we continue to follow DHEC’s guidance when we meet on August 3rd to vote on the district’s re-opening plan. For now, all I can say is that this is between the Governor’s Office and the State Superintendent’s Office.”

South Carolina schools have been closed since March when COVID-19 cases started to ramp up in the state.

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