SC governor says schools must reopen in-person as other state leaders remain wary

SC governor says schools must reopen in-person as other state leaders remain wary
Richland One is still considering different scenarios, from modified staggered schedules to all virtual, to delaying the start date. Richland One schools are tentatively scheduled to resume on August 19. (Source: WIS)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The debate continues about whether to return to the classroom or continue with the virtual learning option.

State leaders understand the educational value of students being in a classroom setting. On Friday, Governor Henry McMaster reaffirmed his stance on reopening schools safely. He did mention that younger children do not spread the virus. We want to clarify that the CDC clearly states children, even if they're not showing symptoms, can spread COVID-19.

McMaster pointed to other reasons, including the mental health and socialization of a child, as to why it's critical to resume in-person education.

"It's not healthy for children to be out of school," said McMaster.

He added the school districts need "to get [students] back in."

McMaster emphasized that "people have to go work. Parents need to go back to work. Teachers want to go to work. Everybody wants to get school started, but we have to make sure we do so safely."

McMaster discussed the lost contact with around 10,000 students, according to Department of Education data, since schools closed due to the pandemic.

"Some have only been reached sporadically," added McMaster. "Not consistently. So, we need to get them back in."

Richland One Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon shared the sentiment that face-to-face learning is essential, including limiting learning loss since the pandemic began.

But is it safe to return?

AccelerateED guidelines stipulate any district located in a high incidence rate area for COVID-19 stay home. Based on recent DHEC data, R1 would not qualify for reopening under that recommendation.

The recent spread of COVID-19 statewide and in Richland County worries Dr. Witherspoon.

"If we have students back, work through all the social distancing and safety precautions, we still have adults that have to be there," said Dr. Witherspoon. "So, that is concerning."

Witherspoon prioritizes safety for all involved, from students, teachers, to all school-related staff. The district has a survey out to both parents and teachers to gauge their feelings on reopening.

"We have to take that into consideration, which makes a lot of these decisions that much more complicated," said Dr. Witherspoon. "May impact some of the options we do have."

Dr. Joan Duwve, with DHEC, stated that closed indoor spaces with less ventilation where it's hard to keep people apart increase the risk of spreading. On Friday, she was asked if she felt comfortable putting kids back in the classroom, given the recent increase in disease activity.

"If we all work together now, in six weeks, we will be a healthier and safe South Carolina, and we won't have to worry about questions like this," said Duwve.

However, many state leaders are worried.

R1 is still considering different scenarios, from modified staggered schedules to all virtual, to delaying the start date. Richland One schools are tentatively scheduled to resume on August 19.

Dr. Witherspoon notes his district is unique in its layout, urban, suburban, and rural, with a poverty index between 73% and 76%.

Since the spring, he mentions Richland One has worked diligently to address areas lacking available resources for distance learning and tracking down students they lost contact with.

"We want to do everything we can from a strategic support standpoint, where are our students," said Witherspoon. "Students whom we have not heard from. We deploy resources, whether that's social workers or mental health, parent, and family engagement specialists. Again, let our folks know we are here, and whatever assistance we can provide, we need to do that."

R1 intends to have a formal education plan to begin the school year in about 10 days.

They're still combing through the DHEC data, AccelerateED guidelines, surveys, and work team recommendations that look at safety processes and protocols.

On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Education Association, and the School Superintendents Association issued a joint statement. It said in part that returning to school is "important for the healthy development and well-being of children... but we must pursue reopening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers, and staff."

They also urge district leaders to consider the current spread of Covid-19 in their area to decide to return to in-person classes.

As of July 5, DHEC says 39 counties have a high rate of recent disease activities. Seven have a medium rate, while none have a low rate.

Under the AccelerateED guidelines, the 39 counties with high spread levels should remain completely virtual, while the seven counties with medium spread should follow a hybrid model of online and in-person classes.

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