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Editorial: SC has to get kids back into classroom, with or without Legislature's help

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Parents in a suburban Columbia school district turned out for a school board meeting earlier this month to demand their kids be allowed back in the classroom five days a week. Adam Benson/Staff 

It's not the sort of message you expect to hear from the head of the state Department of Social Services, but Michael Leach's Sept. 16 report to legislators made it clear that school officials have obligations beyond teaching what's in the textbooks — and that they have to step up their game as long as so many of our schools remain in COVID-19 lockdown. 

After three months of working with school officials and police, DSS is still trying to find 60 children who dropped off the radar after our state closed the classrooms in March in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic. But with more than 3,000 students located, it's important to note why most of them lost touch: They didn’t have a computer or reliable internet service; they or their parents didn’t know how to do the work or found it too difficult; their parents had a hard time contacting teachers or were simply overwhelmed by what was being asked of them.

We all know about those problems, which are a byproduct of remote learning, and we know they still exist for many children whose districts haven't allowed them back into the classroom. That’s why Mr. Leach urged school officials to update their attendance policies in light of COVID-inspired remote learning. It's why he reminded school officials that they are required by state law not only to “identify the reasons for the child’s continued absence" but also to "develop a plan in conjunction with the student and his/her parent/guardian to improve his future attendance,” which is tough to do when the children are still stuck in remote learning.

The fact that this message came from the state official whose job it is to protect children from abuse and neglect should drive home the crucial role that schools play in the lives of children. They don't just impart knowledge; they help develop social skills, provide meals, and enable their parents to earn a living so they can provide a home and food and medical care.

The schools also provide a safety net: an opportunity for someone outside the family to check regularly on the children — to look for signs of abuse or neglect, yes, but also to identify problems that someone might be able to help with.

That makes it all the more disappointing that lawmakers ended the 2020 legislative session Thursday without doing anything to get more students back into the classroom.

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Although 15 districts have had their classrooms opened from Day 1 and others, including Charleston and Greenville, are making progress toward bringing back as many students as want to be there, three weeks into the school year there are still 10 districts that don’t allow any students in the classroom, and many others seem content to limit either the number of students in the schools or the number of days they’re allowed in.

Yet despite some complaints, legislators never seriously considered passing any sort of in-person requirement during their two-week session. Not even a nonbinding resolution urging districts to open their classes to students.

They didn’t consider providing state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman any tools to help her intervene when districts are clearly dragging their feet. And Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposal to entice districts to allow more students in the classroom by providing extra funding to cover the extra cost that entails? Judging from the debate over federal CARES Act funding, you’d think legislators never heard about that proposal.

So absent any legislative leadership, all we can do is hope that more school officials will come to recognize that we’re not going to provide the education children need — much less all the other vital supports — until we get all children back into the classroom. And with too few exceptions, that hasn't been enough of a priority for school districts. That has to change, and we can't wait until the risk of infection is zero to change it.

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