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Foster children, 4-year-olds and out-of-work adults to benefit from McMaster's designation

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Henry McMaster, Statehouse, Press Conference (copy) (copy)

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster speaks to reporters during a press conference in November 2020. File 

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster announced Tuesday that he is allocating $20 million in federal COVID-19 aid on foster children's schooling, extended learning for 4-year-old kindergartners and job training for adults. 

The Republican governor said the allocations are aimed at creating opportunities amid a pandemic that's forced people out of work and disrupted children's education.

"We’ve got to get our children back in the classroom. That’s where they learn best," he said. "Our goal is to see to it that parents get to work, and those who need training get training."

The money redirects part of the $32 million that McMaster intended to spend on vouchers for private-school tuition, before the state Supreme Court blocked him.

The funding will be split among several agencies. 

Nearly $5 million will go to the state Department of Social Services to buy computers, boost internet speeds and hire tutors for abused and neglected children in the state's 74 group homes. That's where 575 children live, or 15 percent of all those in foster care in South Carolina. 

The virtual-only and hybrid mix of online and in-person learning used in districts across the state can be difficult for any child but especially for foster children "with the highest level of needs," DSS Director Michael Leech said.

The state's education and early childhood agencies will collectively get $7 million to extend in-person learning for at-risk children in state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten. The money will extend both the school day, to 5 p.m., and the year, funding programs throughout the summer. 

The idea is to better prepare poor 4-year-olds for school, while allowing their parents to work. 

"The economic viability of our state depends on people being able to go back to work, and the future of our state depends on investments we make today in our youngest citizens," said Georgia Mjartan, director of First Steps, which oversees the 4K program in more than 200 churches, day cares and private schools statewide. 

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More than 2,200 4-year-olds are enrolled in classrooms through First Steps, where learning has continued face-to-face, five days a week since June 1. The money will cover summer school in those programs for last year, as well as 2021 and 2022. 

The state's education agency intended to use federal COVID-19 aid to fund summer programs in public elementary schools last year, but most districts backed out amid the rising coronavirus cases. A few districts didn't bring students back inside classrooms until November. Many districts are starting this semester with a return to online-only education, following the holiday break.  

"The impact of this pandemic on our youngest citizens is not yet known. But we know young children need in-person learning to be ready to start school," Mjartan said. 

The state's technical colleges will get $8 million to train 3,100 adults for jobs in fields including health care, computer technology and advanced manufacturing. 

The programs will be 15 weeks or less and should start this month, said Tim Hardee, president of the state Technical College System.  

"We look forward to being able to move these people from unemployment to a highly skilled job in South Carolina," he said.

The allocation is part of the $48 million Congress provided to the governor last March for emergency education spending. He has until May to award the rest. Under the law's federal deadline, any of that block of money unspent by then returns to federal coffers.

McMaster gave no timeline Tuesday on when he'll decide on that remaining $28 million. The latest COVID-19 aid package Congress passed last month will give him more money at his discretion to put toward education. 

The governor had planned to use much of the money on school vouchers before the state's high court gave a final "no" last month, asserting its prior ruling that the grants of up to $6,500 per students violated the state constitution's ban against public money directly benefiting private education. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.