Virus Outbreak South Carolina

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and legislative leaders walk out in masks for a news conference at the Statehouse in Columbia on Wednesday. McMaster called the news conference to urge school districts to provide five days of in-person learning when they reopen soon.

Unlike the thousands of tests we’ve taken over our lifetime, the decision to return Aiken County’s schoolkids to face-to-face instruction doesn’t have a yes or no answer. This is more like a multiple choice question but the kind that requires the dreaded essay answer.

We all want kids to go back to school.

Social-distanced, in-class instruction is working in other countries where the coronavirus spread is better contained and that has to be our goal. Regardless of whether you believe the science or the data, there’s no reason to question South Carolina’s 20% positivity rate in testing and the fact that neighbors, people we know, are dying from COVID-19.

Our current condition led Aiken City Council to respond to advice from trusted public health officials and mandate face coverings. It’s something many schools and businesses were already requesting from the public.

When it comes to pandemics, we are all learning as we go. Returning our kids to school in these conditions requires understanding and flexibility; two things noticeably absent from our executive directives on the subject.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster implored school districts across the state to: 1. Enroll students in virtual learning programs or 2. Open up public schools five days per week for in-person learning.

Can we get an option three?

Here’s why. Heightened anxiety caused businesses and schools to take an early recess in the spring and here we are four months later, households facing dire socio and economic conditions, and school districts underfunded and ill-advised to reopen at full capacity.

McMaster said, “Parents need to have a choice,” in deciding between virtual learning or in-class instruction. Yet, there’s been rumbling but no real action on improving broadband access to support virtual classrooms beyond hotspots on Aiken County’s school buses. Thankfully Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, have been outspoken on our behalf on this subject and all of Aiken’s delegation sees the urgency.

It’s clear that McMaster is pushing for all students to return to the schoolhouses. It falls in line with what President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said earlier this month in advocating for full in-class instruction.

South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman was conspicuously absent from the governor’s briefing on school reopening; however, just the week before, Spearman said taking more safety precautions are necessary if schools are to actually reopen. “I have been saying ‘wear your mask,’ loud and clear, for quite some time,” Spearman told a Senate panel in Columbia.

It’s more than the mask. Full classrooms reopening safely takes money and time. We are short on both.

After the governor’s comments Wednesday, Spearman agreed that getting back to five days of in-person instruction was the overall goal but said some districts can’t do that and keep children safe at the same time.

“There’s nothing more essential, nothing more important we can do than educate the children of South Carolina,” McMaster said.

We agree that educating children is important, but safety should be the governor’s top priority now. School districts can eventually go back to classroom instruction or modify schedules and curriculum to make up the learning gap, but they cannot get back a life that’s lost.

That life may not be a child in the school – it could be a teacher or the school bus driver or a grandparent who lives in the home – and public health is so much bigger than returning children to school without the needed support. It’s worth noting that teachers and education groups roundly criticized the governor’s announcement.

The Aiken County School Board voted for a hybrid model at its Tuesday night meeting. The plan calls for two days of in-person classes and three days of virtual learning. The Aiken County Public School District is also offering a virtual-only option through Aiken Innovate. The blended solution seems like a well-thought-out scenario for the district that would be even stronger if leaders and business owners countywide convene to address the pending childcare gaps that come alongside splitting in-class instruction.

But barely 12 hours after the school board meeting, McMaster came out with his gubernatorial directive.

Now Aiken County is holding another meeting to review its proposal and recommendations, which took weeks to develop.

We see it as another missed opportunity for McMaster to prioritize health and make the right decision for South Carolinians. This is hard, it’s not like an evacuation plan; the eye of the hurricane hasn’t even passed us yet.

King Laurence, superintendent for Aiken schools, said the options already approved by the school board best fit the guidelines from national and state health authorities.

“It’s an ever-evolving plan and the guidance we’re getting is ever-changing, too,” said Keith Liner, chairman of the school board. “The No. 1 priority is still the safety of our students and staff."

As it should be. Returning students, teachers and staff to full-time classes doesn’t make sense until the confirmed cases and deaths come down significantly in the Palmetto State.

Aiken County has a solid plan for the start of school which, by the way, is now less than a month away. When it’s safe to return to full-time, traditional learning, do so. Until then, schools need to stay flexible and proceed with caution.