MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is calling on all public school districts to consider COVID-19 rapid testing for students. He addressed the testing issue during a COVID-19 pandemic response briefing Wednesday afternoon.
As of Wednesday, the South Carolina Department of Education confirmed 11 out of the 81 school districts in the state have opted out of the rapid testing program. One of those districts is Horry County Schools.
During the briefing, the governor was asked to provide his thoughts about the districts opting out of rapid test kits due to concerns about the process and the strain on school staff and resources.
McMaster appeared visibly confused by the issue, sharing his disapproval about districts not on board with his testing plans for schools.
“I don’t understand that frankly,” McMaster said. “We have those tests available, they’re free, and I’ve been tested eleven or twelve times. There’s nothing to it. They [should] do it. We need to get the children back into school or we’ll be paying the price for that for decades.”
The governor said throughout the pandemic, the state provided enough resources to ensure staff and teachers are protected at the schools so parents would feel comfortable sending their kids to the campus five days a week. He says that included having enough personal protective equipment for teachers and staff.
McMaster says the COVID-19 rapid testing is an additional safety measure to help provide a safer learning environment for students so school districts could move to full-time face-to-face learning.
He added the state has done all it can to ensure five days of face-to-face instruction can happen safely, and he’s not happy some districts aren’t taking advantage of the COVID-19 testing.
“Ladies and gentleman, there’s very little I can do to open these schools that we have not done,” McMaster said. “I do not have the authority to make the school districts make that decision. I cannot do it.”
Although McMaster said he doesn’t understand why some districts, like Horry County, are opting out, some educational leaders say they do.
Ryan Brown, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Education, said he talked to many of those districts that have declined the testing.
“The vast majority of them that declined indicated they did not have the staffing capacity to do it or there was some communication issue with students coming to school with symptoms and the test being used for only symptomatic individuals,” Brown said. “With some of the major metropolitan areas [like Horry], they have a lot of community based testing available and that also played in some of the decision-making.”
Although some educational leaders are in support of full-time face-to-face learning, others aren’t.
Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, is not on board with McMaster’s push for five days of face-to-face instruction. She says the pandemic is straining some school districts right now.
The association says some schools don’t have enough teachers who aren’t sick or in quarantine to keep up with face-to-face learning.
“Let’s err on the side of safety right now,” East said. “They have so many people out that are having trouble covering at one school. We heard all the administrative team was out on quarantine so that school needs to shut down.”
During the beginning of the school year, McMaster said 15 school districts began the year with face-to-face learning, five days a week.
McMaster revealed the state polled those districts in a survey to see what elements played a role with the semester being successful for staff and students.
“This was done to learn what practices and polices were working and [not working] and what additional support was needed to ensure the continued safety of the students, teachers and staff,” McMaster said.
According to the survey results, McMaster said one of the biggest things that helped those districts in that learning model was constant communication between teachers, staff and parents.
He says each district in the state will receive a copy of this survey and hopes schools not offering a five day a week face-to-face option will look to see how they offer that option to families in the near future.
McMaster is urging districts to change their course and implement the rapid testing. In the meantime, some educational leaders are hoping the governor changes his course soon.
“The vaccine is right around the corner,” East said. “If we can just pull together and make this work for a couple more months, then we’re going to be back to normal as we can very soon. So why risk anyone else’s life right now?”
WMBF News contacted Horry County Schools for their response to the governor’s statements. A spokesperson for the district says school leaders stand by their statements made during Monday night’s board meeting, which supported opting out of the rapid testing.