McMaster, South Carolina educators at odds over reopening schools

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina parents, students and teachers received clarity Wednesday on what their upcoming school year will look like.

Gov. Henry McMaster and fellow Republican leaders of the House and Senate joined forces to demand that schools open five days a week for in-person instruction. At a news conference, McMaster announced that parents will have the choice to send their kids back to school for in-person learning or to stay at home for remote learning only.

Wednesday’s announcement came as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the state.

>> Have questions about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the Carolinas? We have an entire section dedicated to coverage of the outbreak -- CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

McMaster called on school districts to create reopening plans that give parents the option of sending kids to school for in-person learning five days a week, or virtual learning. The governor said state leaders will not approve any plan that does not include an option for face-to-face learning because he feels “the classroom is one of the safest places to be.”

“Virtual education is not as good as teaching face-to-face,” McMaster said.

McMaster said those plans must be submitted by Friday and he has asked Superintendent Molly Spearman to reject any plans that do not give parents a choice for virtual schooling and in-person schooling.

The governor said he would not issue an executive order on the matter but wanted the state to take every step needed to reopen schools.

McMaster said that if students do not get face-to-face instruction with their teachers, they will fall behind. He said that there is no relationship more important -- other than parents -- than a child’s interaction with their teachers.

“What we need to do is take every step at our disposal to get kids back in schools,” McMaster said.

The governor also asked districts to consider pushing back the start of classes until September 8, the day after Labor Day, so additional precautions can be taken and plans made.

Many districts had already come up with their own plans to reopen. The governor asked them to push the start date past Labor Day.

In Lancaster, the news was met with frustration.

“The governor also asked for us to have everyday instruction five days a week,” said Lancaster County Superintendent Jonathan Phipps. “There is no way we can social distance if we have every student in school five days a week, so we’re gonna ask for a waiver.”

The Palmetto State Teachers Association said the state has to get COVID-19 under control before students and teachers can return safely to classrooms.

The organization released a statement following McMaster’s announcement, saying it “categorically opposes” the push for all school districts to operate in-person instruction, five days a week.

“What I want to hear is, ‘What steps will our state leadership take over the course of the next four to five to six weeks?’” said Patrick Kelly, Palmetto Teachers Association. “To slow the spread of coronavirus in this state, until we can do that, it is simply not safe.”

Chester County has been a COVID-19 hot spot and, its hospital is listed at 100% capacity. There was also the death of a child from the virus.

“I was all for in-person, because they need to get out be active with other children,” grandparent Wanda Stevenson said. “But since we actually had our first death in Chester County, with a five-year-old, and knowing my children and the children I drove on the bus with -- they are not gonna stay away from each other, so I guess virtual for mine.”

Like North Carolina, South Carolina education leaders initially gave school districts three options to prepare for reopening.

The first plan included in-person classes while taking safety precautions like social distancing and wearing masks. The next was a hybrid plan, aimed at districts that don’t have enough building space for proper social distancing. Students would rotate between in-person and online classes, which is similar to North Carolina’s plan. The third plan was a remote-only option.

McMaster left it up to the school districts to decide between the first and third plan. He was clear that he did not choose the hybrid option or issue an executive order because he wants students in the classroom, but he believes parents should still have the choice.

Sen. Greg Hembree joined McMaster at the news conference and agreed with the governor. He said students should return to the classroom because virtual learning isn’t as effective.

“It was a terrific effort, based on the circumstances, but the results on the back end have been dismal,” he said in regards to virtual learning. “Bottom line, it hasn’t worked for many, many of our students.”

While waiting on the announcement from McMaster, some school districts had already moved ahead with their plans.

York County Public Schools will start on Aug. 10. District leaders held a meeting Tuesday night and will offer virtual lessons for its students who would prefer to learn online.

Earlier this week, the Rock Hill School Board also approved a plan to have students on an “A-B Schedule.” This means on Tuesdays through Fridays, half the students will come in one day and the other half comes in the next day.

Mondays will be considered a “C-Day” for small groups of students to come in for extra help.

The district is also offering a virtual learning academy for families who want to keep their children at home. Registration for that will happen later this week.

“Now, we have to figure out what’s next,” said Mychal Frost, with Rock Hill Schools. “So, do we change? Do we not change? How do we accommodate with the new information.”

Rock Hill officials said they plan to meet with independently elected state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman Thursday to talk about their options.

Spearman said she doesn’t support the demand that schools open five days a week for in-person instruction because of the virus spread.

A Rock Hill teacher said she also has concerns about the governor’s decision.

“I want everyone to be healthy,” she said. “At this time, I do not feel safe going back into the classroom five days a week.”

Earlier this week, Spearman said they were using information from the Department of Health and the CDC to make their decision to reopen.

She issued the following statement following McMaster’s announcement:

“Every South Carolina parent must be afforded the option to choose virtual learning or a face to face model for their child this school year. The pandemic has shown the vital importance of our public education system and the broad range of services beyond teaching it provides for our students every day. Our goal must be a return to five day a week in-person instruction as safely and as soon as possible.

“We cannot, however, turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world. School leaders, in consultation with public health experts, are best positioned to determine how in-person operations should be carried out to fit the needs of their local communities. I remain committed to supporting them in this endeavor and will only approve those plans that offer high-quality options and keep safety as their top priority.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield has said he wants students to return to the classroom and he feels it’s more of a crisis for them not to be there. He said millions of children get mental health services and meals at school and that it plays an important role in mandatory reporting for child and sexual abuse.

He also said the virus has demonstrated limited ability to cause significant mortality in children.

The director has called South Carolina’s situation unique. The state has emerged as a virus hotspot, at one point being listed as the fourth-highest new infection rate in the nation. Data shows South Carolina has the third-worst COVID-19 outbreak in the world, trailing Florida and Arizona.

On Saturday, the state reported its first coronavirus death in a child under the age of 5 in Chester County.

Despite the continued increase in cases and hospitalizations, McMaster said he wants children in school. He said the American Academy of Pediatrics has backed returning to school and he feels confident in the state’s resources to do so safely.

One issue that’s been brought up by parents is how partial remote learning will affect students on free and reduced lunch.

Students getting adequate nutrition was one of the main concerns Redfield brought up when talking about getting kids back into the classroom.

Channel 9 looked into the number of students enrolled in the program in North Carolina. During the 2017-2018 school year, 59% were enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, according to officials.

Nearly 60% of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were enrolled.