COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster and top GOP lawmakers on Wednesday called on S.C. public schools to reopen and offer face-to-face learning in the fall despite the continuing record spread of the novel coronavirus, declaring South Carolina's experiment with virtual instruction in the spring a failure.
The request received immediate pushback from the state's education chief; several state education groups and school districts; and the top Democrat in the S.C. Senate, who said students should return to schools only when it is safe.
McMaster shrugged off questions about how reopening schools for five days a week might fuel the ongoing spread of the virus, which has infected at least 60,000 South Carolinians and killed nearly 1,000 since March. Those numbers have spiked recently as South Carolina has become one of the country's worst hotspots for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
“The higher percentages that we see now, those are just facts we have to deal with,” McMaster said. "But we can't stop everything. We can't stop progress in education and people working. We can't shut down forever."
McMaster's request came as school districts across the country are grappling with how to resume instruction this fall, weighing the many benefits of in-person learning against the risk of infecting students, parents, teachers and staffers. North Carolina's 1.5 million public school students will return to school next month, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday, but under a social distancing plan that limits how many days they must attend each week.
McMaster said South Carolina's 79 districts should take every precaution to keep teachers and students safe and promised the state would invest in those safeguards. He also encouraged them to postpone the start of the school year until as late as Sept. 8 to develop those plans.
He and fellow Republicans stressed that tens of thousands of S.C. students have fallen behind on their instruction or entirely lost contact with teachers since schools closed their doors in March, in part because rural parts of the state still lack high-speed internet access.
Districts could still offer virtual instruction for families that don't feel comfortable sending their children to school, McMaster said. But he called on state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, a Saluda Republican, to reject any district's plans for the upcoming semester that don't include in-person classes.
"Parents have to have the choice," McMaster said. "But we must have our schools available."
Spearman declined an invitation to the news conference and pushed back on the governor's request, a rare public disagreement between the governor and the state's top education official. The governor was flanked by high-ranking GOP lawmakers, including Senate President Harvey Peeler of Gaffney and House Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville. But no school or district officials attended to lend their support.
In a written statement after McMaster's news conference, Spearman said her goal is to reopen schools for five days a week "as safely and as soon as possible." But she indicated the choice should be left with local school districts.
"We cannot ... 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," Spearman said. "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.”
Asked during a Senate hearing last week if McMaster ought to order a statewide mask requirement, in addition to shutting down bars and indoor dining, Spearman replied, “If I ruled the world, yes.” McMaster later that week did order a cutoff on restaurant alcohol sales at 11 p.m.
Greenville County School District, the state's largest with more than 77,000 students, is adamantly opposed to McMaster's request. It was already gearing up for online instruction, with plans to provide laptops to each of its students for the fall semester.
"Everything we have done up to this point has been with the understanding that whatever plan we come up with, we will put safety first, district spokesman Tim Waller said. "Then to hear Gov. McMaster and his cronies basically throw caution to the wind and not mention a single time in his comments the high rate of COVID-19 in this state. We couldn't believe it."
Charleston County School District said Wednesday it plans to provide virtual and in-person options for parents in the fall. Horry County School District plans to follow guidance from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and stay out of the McMaster-Spearman squabble, school board chairman Ken Richardson said.
"I believe it is important to use our state’s disease experts to guide our decision making for when and how we return our students and employees to schools," Richardson said.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, a West Columbia Democrat, called McMaster's decision premature.
“South Carolina’s schools should only be opened when we know for certain it is safe for our students, teachers, and everyone who works in our education system to return," Setzler wrote. "We know, based on testing data provided by DHEC every day, that their safety cannot be assured at this point."
The Palmetto State Teacher Association released a statement declaring its opposition to McMaster's request.
"If health conditions do not improve," the group wrote, "it would be irresponsible and dangerous to require a return to full in-person instruction."
Another teachers group, the S.C. Education Association, also bristled at McMaster's request, saying basic questions about how schools will ensure mask use and social distancing haven't been answered yet.
"The issue has never been about returning to school," said association president Sherry East. "Our teachers are eager to get back to their classrooms. We know in-person instruction works best. But we can't teach — nor can children learn — in an unsafe environment, and COVID-19 is not just unsafe, it's deadly."
Lawmakers who spoke at the press conference Wednesday stressed the value of in-person instruction. Students with learning disabilities, attention disorders and other special needs require in-person support, they said.
Schools have lost contact with at least 10,000 students since closing four months ago, they said, adding that they can't afford to wait on a broadband plan that would expand internet access to rural parts of the state.
"We need to have that yesterday," said House Education and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg.
Even students who can access online materials haven't progressed as well during virtual instruction, Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree said. The Little River Republican praised schools and teachers for trying, but said "the results on the back end have been abysmal."
School districts are in the process of finalizing and submitting their plans for the coming school year to the state Department of Education. Spearman has the sole authority to approve or reject those plans.
McMaster said he could not legally intervene to force districts to reopen. But, he added, the state General Assembly could reconvene in Columbia to take action if lawmakers are unhappy with a lack of face-to-face learning in public schools this fall.
In an interview with The Post and Courier, Spearman said she had spoken with McMaster before the news conference. The heart of their disagreement was over how much flexibility to offer local districts, she said.
McMaster was insistent that schools must be open five days a week, Spearman said. She said some schools can't yet do that safely. Schools need to be able to tailor their plans to their facilities and the most recent testing data, she said.
A few school boards have already chosen to begin the year virtually. That includes Sumter School District and the school board in rural Colleton County, which unanimously voted to do so Tuesday night.
The S.C. School Boards Association sided with Spearman.
"School board members have been consistent in advocating that recommendations from the state level should include a range of options, not universal mandates, in recognition of every districts’ differing needs of students, teachers and staff, differing infrastructures and differing resources," Association President Chuck Saylors wrote. "The decision of when and how to open schools is best made at the local level."
The S.C. Association of School Administrators took a similar stance.
“School administrators, teachers, and school staff members are anxious to have students return to school on a regular schedule," wrote Beth Phibbs, that group's executive director. "As professionals, we know firsthand the important role our public schools play in the educational, emotional, and physical well-being of our children. However, our concern for the health and safety of our students and staff is — and will always be — our first and foremost priority."
Andy Shain, Anna B. Mitchell, Tyler Fleming, Jenna Schiferl and Adam Benson contributed to this report.