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On schools reopening amid coronavirus, Gov. McMaster treads perilous political ground

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Virus Outbreak South Carolina (copy) (copy)

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. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

Within minutes of Gov. Henry McMaster’s news conference calling on schools to reopen this fall for face-to-face learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, the laundry list of critics began to grow.

Education groups, teachers’ associations and prominent state lawmakers released statements chastising the Columbia Republican’s request and insisting students should return only when schools can ensure their safety. The state’s largest school district, Greenville County, said it was “incredibly concerned” by the governor’s stance as social media erupted.

In a rare public split from the governor, Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, declined an invitation to the Wednesday press conference and released a statement objecting to McMaster’s insistence that every school reopen for five days a week.

The episode was the clearest example yet of the perilous political tightrope McMaster walks as South Carolina’s worsening COVID-19 case numbers create difficult decisions about key aspects of public life, such as how to educate the state’s 787,000 public school students this fall.

As South Carolina has become one of the country's worst coronavirus hotspots, McMaster has faced more criticism over his handling of the pandemic than any other issue since assuming office in January 2017.

He has been blasted for not taking the virus seriously enough — waiting too long to issue a work-or-home order, reopening too soon, and refusing to order South Carolinians to wear masks in public.

On his political right, he was hammered for ordering a shutdown at all, no matter how brief. In May, Republican state Sen. Shane Martin accused the governor of illegally trampling on personal liberties, calling him “King Henry” during an interview on a conservative radio show.

"Gov. McMaster's got a very difficult job,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, a Sumter Republican and McMaster ally. “Everybody's got an opinion on what the right way to handle one issue concerning this crisis or another. Every decision made, you've got angry constituents out there on one side and people who are satisfied. But you are never going to satisfy everybody.”

In interviews this week with more than two dozen parents, The Post and Courier heard from some who didn’t feel comfortable sending their children to school this fall and others who felt compelled to do so because online schooling hadn’t worked for their kids.

But many of those parents shared a common frustration that the government, and especially McMaster, had put them in a position of choosing whether to prioritize their families’ health or their children’s education.

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Abby Philpott, an Upstate parent, said she is keeping her ninth grader home this fall, which feels like a punishment for the straight-A student.

"His health, fellow students' health, teachers' health and the health of our family is more important than grades right now," Philpott said. "Having to be the bad guy and make the call myself instead of the governor stepping up for us has made this 10 (times) harder."

The state was announcing roughly 160 new cases a day when McMaster lifted his work-or-home order on May 4. This week, the state announced about 1,900 new cases each day. 

McMaster's schools request came the same week an unpublished report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended South Carolina — along with 17 other states deemed hot spots — close bars and gyms in problem areas and reinstate restrictions on gatherings of more than 10.

On Friday, the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina wrote the governor a letter siding with Spearman and urging him to reconsider.

“Merely returning to what is familiar is not only impossible; it poses an unacceptable risk to health and safety,” the collection of bishops wrote. “We must instead proceed with care and deliberation, fundamentally informed by education leaders and public health professionals.”

South Carolinians have been watching McMaster navigate this crisis — his greatest challenge since assuming office in January 2017 — for months. But this week’s clash over reopening schools drove the issue home for many voters who will decide whether McMaster keeps his job in 2022, political observers say.

“When your children become involved in the discussion, sometimes peoples’ hearts change,” said GOP consultant Dave Wilson.

Wilson noted that McMaster’s stances now could become fodder for opponents looking to pick apart his record in the 2022 GOP primary campaign and general election. Some of those decisions will play differently among primary voters than they will in a general election race. And in 2022, opponents will have the benefit of hindsight to question the governor’s calls.

“It is a very difficult balancing act because you have so many people with so many different opinions on a virus we don’t fully understand,” Wilson said.

Jim Rex, a former Democratic S.C. superintendent of education from 2007-11, said it remains too early to tell how McMaster will be viewed by school parents on the back end of this crisis.

“It’s going to depend on how he handles this over the next 30 to 45 days,” Rex said. “If he shows he is flexible and willing to accommodate some of the plans that school districts have, he can come out of it pretty unscathed. If he tries to hold a hard line. ... I think there will be some political fallout.”

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and is a 2015 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.

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