COLUMBIA — A bill ensuring all South Carolina school districts offer full weeks of in-person learning the rest of this academic year and beyond, while guaranteeing teachers more money for working double duty, is heading to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk.
The House voted unanimously April 21 on the measure that also aims to help districts fill vacancies by providing retired teachers an incentive to return.
The effort started as a way to force school districts to offer a full return to the classroom.
As initially passed by the Senate, the deadline was April 12. The final version sets an April 26 deadline.
All but three of the state's 79 traditional school districts already offer all students full weeks in the classroom. The remaining three — Greenville and Colleton counties and Hampton 2 (Estill) — will comply with the law, transitioning to a full return for all grades on the deadline.
Broken down by schools, 1,210 of the state's K-12 public schools offered five days of face-to-face instruction April 21, while 51 schools provided a virtual and in-person mix, with two to four days weekly in the classroom, according to the state Department of Education.
"Every family must be given the option of sending their child to school five days a week face to face and the science shows that this can be done safely in every community," said state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, who began pushing reluctant school boards to do so since the winter break.
McMaster is sure to sign the bill. He's repeatedly said since last summer that if he had the legal authority to force a full-week option, he would do so.
The measure soon to become law ensures districts will stay in the full-return mode next school year.
But with districts already announcing plans to also continue offering a fully virtual mode, the legislation bans administrators from assigning teachers to essentially work double-time, instructing students both in person and online. If "extreme and unavoidable circumstances" require the dual instruction, teachers must be paid for the extra work. And the state's not paying for it.
If a district requires a teacher to work in both modes simultaneously, the district needs to find a way to pay for it. Hopefully, that will discourage such assignments. Otherwise, they collectively have $3 billion of federal aid at their discretion, legislators said.
The state's largest teacher advocacy group said that aid would be well spent on another provision in the bill, which allows districts to rehire retired teachers at a salary of up to $50,000 a year — for three years — without losing their pension payments. Currently, retired public employees who come back lose their pension for the rest of the year after hitting a $10,000 salary cap.
"These highly qualified and experienced individuals bring the expertise to schools necessary to address the effects of a year of disrupted instruction," said Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association.