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Editorial: If 2022 school report cards are as bad as this year's, blame SC Legislature

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Tens of thousands of S.C. students already have been forced into quarantine in the past month because they've been exposed to COVID-19, likely by students and teachers who aren't wearing masks. (Shakailah Heard/Staff)

We knew locking kids out of the classroom in the spring of 2020 and, in some districts, much of this past school year stunted their academic growth, so no one should be surprised by the across-the-board drops in test scores on the South Carolina school report cards released this month.

And we shouldn’t be surprised if the scores continue to plummet next year — or at least fail to recover — since more than 50,000 students already have been forced into quarantine and back into online learning, if that's even being offered.

Nor should we have any doubt about who’s to blame for this reversion to subpar education: the S.C. Legislature, which refused to require — or even allow schools to require — students to wear masks inside our public schools.

We've said before that the Legislature needs to repeal its prohibition on school mask mandates because the anti-public health measure is sending too many children home in quarantine. But Gov. Henry McMaster, some legislators and a vocal minority of parents keep insisting that parents have the right to decide whether their children wear masks, so we have to keep explaining what that really means, and why it's ridiculous.

What they’re saying is that parents have a right to expose other parents’ children to the coronavirus by allowing their own children to propel their unobstructed respiratory droplets onto those children.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to force other parents’ children out of the classroom and into quarantine, for up to two weeks at a time, possibly for multiple times in a school year.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to steal a decent education from other parents’ children.

They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to force other parents to stay home from work to take care of their quarantined children — perhaps losing pay or even getting fired from their jobs as a result.

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They’re saying that parents who so choose have a right to cripple our economy. Again.

It’s not the schools that are deciding to send children into quarantine when they come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19. School districts decide if the number of quarantined students and teachers is so high that they need to temporarily close an entire school or their entire district, but it’s the Department of Health and Environmental Control that wrote the rules for quarantines under its legal mandate — on the books for decades — to protect the public from easily transmissible diseases.

The Legislature could strip our public health agency of that authority if it wanted to — and if it had the votes to do so. We doubt it does, but we’ll go ahead and say right now that any legislator who cares about protecting our hospitals from collapse or about controlling the growing number of South Carolinians dying from COVID-19 or about providing a decent education to S.C. children or about keeping businesses open and keeping parents at work and keeping our economy humming along should — indeed, will — use any legal means available to defeat all efforts to strip DHEC of its authority to protect the public health.

A year ago, Gov. McMaster and many of the very same legislators who are now most determined to send other people’s children into quarantine were demanding — along with our editorial staff — that the schools open and allow all children the option of five-day-a-week in-person classes. We don’t know what their motivation actually was; we do know that they pulled a bait-and-switch after the Legislature finally required that, and immediately started demanding that parents be allowed to expose other people’s children to COVID-19.

But for those of us who care about educating the next generation, the motivation was this reality: The vast majority of children do not learn as well when they are taught remotely. Even under the best of circumstances, which the students who started out behind don’t have.

It was the fact that keeping kids out of the classroom also exposes them to a higher risk of child abuse and psychological stress and stunts their socialization skills and their emotional well-being. Last year, schools were where we could best protect many children from COVID-19, because they were the one place where everybody was sanitizing their hands and keeping their distance — and wearing masks.

Set aside the danger of COVID-19; even though it has hospitalized and even killed some S.C. children, the vast majority of kids will develop no more than cold or flu-like symptoms, if that. Instead, let’s just focus on education. From 2019 to 2021, standardized test scores for students in third grade and higher dropped in nearly all areas with the exception of English 1 end-of-course exams. And our test scores were way behind the rest of the nation before the pandemic.

Mask mandates do two things to help keep children in school. First, they reduce the number of "close contacts" who have to be quarantined for up to two weeks: With mask mandates, DHEC defines close contacts as people who were within 3 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes when everyone is masked, but within 6 feet without an enforced mask mandate; that can mean four times as many people have to be quarantined without a mask requirement. Second, when mask requirements are enforced, infections plummet. And that creates algorithmic magic that keeps even more children in the classroom, where they can get the education our state needs them to have and their parents can go to work to keep our economy from collapsing.

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