McMaster wants SC students in classroom full-time despite rise in virus cases

SOUTH CAROLINA — Despite South Carolina’s rising coronavirus cases, Gov. Henry McMaster said he wants all students back in the classroom five days a week.

The governor held a news conference Wednesday afternoon where he noted that he has done everything he can to fully reopen schools, but does not have the authority to do so on his own.

“There’s very little I can do to open these schools that we have not done,” he said. “I do not have the authority to make the school districts make that decision. I cannot do it because I do not have the authority. Had I authority, I would have done it a long time ago.”

McMaster has been pushing for schools to fully reopen since before the start of the fall semester. In July, he ordered all school districts to come up with plans that offered parents the option to send their students to school five days a week.

Some elementary schools are fully open but that’s not happening at the middle and high school levels over fear of viral spread.

According to McMaster, the state has sent over $10 million in personal protective gear to school districts across the state. Two weeks ago, the governor directed the Department of Health and Environmental Control to provide every school district with COVID-19 rapid tests.

“There’s ample personal protective equipment. There are ample procedures and policies that have been used successfully. These children not being in school is having enormous unintended consequences,” McMaster said.

The governor said children going to school full-time is the only opportunity some parents have to go to work.

“Many working parents cannot stay home with the children every day, they must go to work to pay the bills and provide for their families. Parents should not have to choose between their child or their job,” he said.

According to the governor, the majority of private schools across South Carolina are fully open and aren’t having any issues with keeping students safe.

The push to fully reopen schools comes as South Carolina reports record high metrics. On Wednesday, there were 2,139 new virus cases and over 10,000 new tests completed with 20.5% coming back positive.

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State epidemiologist Linda Bell said the increasing percent positive rate shows that there is more disease in the community that’s going undiagnosed.

According to Bell, a month ago 35 of the state’s 46 counties were showing virus cases declining. Now, only six counties are showing cases heading downward.

The governor did not issue any new restrictions despite the spike.

Court again nixes SC gov’s private school pandemic aid plan

South Carolina’s highest court again rejected Gov. Henry McMaster’s plan to use $32 million in federal coronavirus relief to provide tuition grants for private schools, ruling Wednesday that spending public money this way is unconstitutional.

The unanimous decision by the state Supreme Court says the governor’s decision to use money from the coronavirus rescue package in this way “constitutes the use of public funds for the direct benefit of private educational institutions within the meaning of, and prohibited by” the South Carolina Constitution.

McMaster unveiled his plan for Safe Access to Flexible Education in July, effectively creating a one-time voucher program for parents who couldn’t otherwise afford the expense of private school. The plan was immediately challenged in court.

Saying he wanted to give more families the option to send their children to private schools -- especially if their own schools would not reopen for in-person instruction because of the pandemic -- McMaster said during an event at a religious school in Greenville that the program would cover about 5,000 SAFE grants of up to $6,500 each for students to attend private schools this academic year.

The governor had called on all the state’s schools to reopen classrooms five days a week, but many instead opted for virtual instruction or a combination of face-to-face and remote learning.

The money flows from the federal relief package passed by Congress early in the pandemic that allocated more than $48 million to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund, to be spent at McMaster’s discretion. McMaster decided that two-thirds of this money should support private schooling.

McMaster, a former state and federal prosecutor, who previously called the program “perfectly legal,” said Wednesday he was “disappointed for the 5,000 or so students from working and low-income families who will be denied any financial aid.”

The governor also said that, because of the court’s decision, independent and private colleges, including historically Black colleges and universities, would not be able to access federal relief dollars that the governor had allocated to them.

As for the $32 million, which must be spent before it expires Dec. 31, McMaster said the funding would go to “providing educational opportunities” but that details were still being worked out.

Wednesday’s ruling was nearly identical to the high court’s original rejection of the case in October, a decision justices agreed to reconsider at the request of McMaster, South Carolina’s private colleges and federal officials.

Plaintiff attorneys argued that the South Carolina Constitution prohibits public dollars from directly benefiting religious or other private education institutions.

Attorneys for the state had said that torpedoing the plan would also put other established funding programs at risk, including higher education tuition grants, lottery scholarships and the South Carolina First Steps program.