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Editorial: Use CARES Act funding to get more SC students back in the classroom

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Gov. Henry McMaster, Camden resident Chuck Marino and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen chat Aug. 13 at Wateree Elementary School in Lugoff. At right is the thermal imaging system being used in Kershaw County schools, one of just 19 S.C. districts offering parents the option of sending their children back into the classroom five days a week. Adam Benson/Staff

This was the deal we thought we were signing up for: Shut down the economy for a month, maybe six weeks, send everybody home, let the coronavirus run its course, and then we’re back to normal.

Only that didn’t happen. Not in states such as South Carolina that never really shut down. Not in states that did. Or in many countries that shut down. They had a lower incidence of COVID-19 infections than South Carolina, but when they opened back up, the infections came right back.

This is why even states that locked down are reopening restaurants, retail, personal services and even events venues, although with stricter and more uniform mask and social distancing requirements than in South Carolina. But there’s a huge exception to reopening, an area where many people in positions of authority insist that infections first have to get down to levels that might not be realistic until we have a vaccine: the schools.

In South Carolina, only 19 of 81 school districts are offering parents the option of sending their children back into the classroom five days a week. Eighteen, including most of the Corridor of Shame schools, aren’t offering any in-class instruction, although S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has insisted that they move to at least a hybrid model this month.

This simply is not sustainable. And it’s why, with the Legislature returning to work this week to spend the remaining $668 million in federal CARES Act funding, Gov. Henry McMaster is pushing lawmakers to provide $50 million to cover the added expenses for schools that allow kids back in the classroom five days a week.

This spring demonstrated that for most students, virtual education is simply no substitute for in-person education. And that having children in the classroom is important to help them develop socialization skills and to keep them safe. And that many parents, who have to go to work in order to provide food and shelter for their children, don’t have the luxury of staying home with their children five, four or even three days a week while they wait for schools to decide they can accommodate all the children whose parents want them physically present in the classroom.

“South Carolina’s economy,” Mr. McMaster said Thursday, “is returning to normal because people have returned to their workplaces following precautions designed to keep them healthy and working. I believe that … by following official COVID-19 procedures and protocols, schools, too, can be reopened safely and sensibly the same way businesses, manufacturers, restaurants, merchants and state government have done.”

We understand that getting kids back into the classroom is easier in some schools than others. The Charleston County School District, for instance, can accommodate all of the children whose parents want them back in class in some schools; in other schools, the demand is so high and the amount of classroom space so low that many students had to start the year with remote learning while they wait for infection rates to drop enough for the district to allow more students in the classrooms. Which might happen at some point. Or not.

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But some districts that could accommodate face-to-face instruction have chosen not to. And even the most space-strapped schools could accommodate more students if they were more creative about what constitutes a “classroom.” The private University School of the Lowcountry, for example, struggled for more than two months to work through the ridiculous bureaucratic hoops to get permission to hold some classes under tents on its Mount Pleasant campus.

We believe that some officials would come up with more creative ways to accommodate more students if they didn’t have to worry about how to pay for furniture and dividers to turn gyms, auditoriums and cafeterias into classrooms or desk partitions to allow more students in each classroom or tents to move them outside or improved ventilation systems or … whatever.

Mr. McMaster’s plan isn’t perfect; districts such as Charleston County probably should be eligible for some extra funding based on how many more students they bring back to school five days per week, rather than requiring that they provide five-day classes for all students who want them, for instance.

But unless the Legislature is willing to require all schools to provide full in-person education to any students who want it, using money as an incentive is a good idea.

And given how important it is to get kids back into the classroom — for parents, for our state’s economy and for the children themselves — we can’t think of any use of the remaining federal COVID funding that should take priority over that effort.

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