Grand Strand private school prepares to reopen, reacts to SAFE grants debate

Local private school principal explains importance of $32M in SAFE grants

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A court hearing was held on Wednesday in Orangeburg County on whether Governor Henry McMaster can grant $32 million dollars to help families pay for private schools.

The funding is called the Safe Access to Flexible Education or SAFE Grants.

This comes as Catholic schools across the state are set to start school in less than a month on Aug. 17.

At Saint Andrew Catholic School in Myrtle Beach, parents will have three learning options.

Principal Debbie Wilfong said parents can choose in-person or distance learning for their students, but not both.

For distance learning, students will be able to either livestream the classes or take an online course.

When it comes to reopening schools, Wilfong will follow guidelines set by the Diocese of Charleston and the CDC.

Desks will be spaced out at least six feet apart, group activities like assemblies will be temporarily suspended and students and teachers will be required to wear face masks.

She said safety is a priority for the students and staff.

“Every morning I wake up thinking about it [safety],” Wilfong said. “Every night I go to sleep thinking about it so all I can do is just provide the safest environment that I can.”

Wilfong said some parents have also been concerned about paying for tuition, which is why the SAFE grants were created.

However, she believes there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the money.

The money for the grants comes from the CARES Act, which U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos authorized to be used toward education no matter what school a student attends.

It’s a grant Lindsay Bannan hopes will help her with her daughter’s tuition this year.

Bannan said she babysits as a second job to pay for her daughter’s education, but that money has run dry because of COVID-19.

“I’ve had hardly any babysitting jobs and that was my extra job that I do to basically be able to send my daughter here,” Bannan said.

As a Saint Andrew alumna, Bannan hopes her daughter will continue to follow in her footsteps.

"It's just really close, tight-knit family and I would hate to have to take her out," she said.

However, a lawsuit claims the grants are unconstitutional based on the state constitution's Blaine Amendment, which states public funds can't be given to religious or other private educational institutions.

Wilfong disagrees with the lawsuit.

“We feel like the program is very solid,” she said. “It’s based on programs from Florida and Arizona and has been very helpful to the children.”

Wilfong said the money won't go to the private institutions, rather to parents who apply for the grant.

She said a lot of people think all parents who enroll their children in private schools are wealthy, but a third of the parents here need some sort of tuition assistance.

“They are not all wealthy,” she said. “This way it will allow those kids who are already in turmoil to remain in the same school that they know and love.”

Wilfong said the school’s base tuition cost $7,200 a year. If the parent is a member of the church, the tuition cost is $5,850.

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