McMaster press conf (copy)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks from the Statehouse in a previous press conference. 

S.C. Gov Henry McMaster has asked state education officials to not accept any school reopening plan that does not include an option of in-person learning five days a week, claiming thousands of students are "lost" across the state due to lack of internet access, devices, and lack of effectiveness of virtual learning itself.

"We cannot restrict learning by forcing students to participate in remote learning when many of our students in rural parts of the state have no access to internet at home to begin with," McMaster said during a press briefing Wednesday.

The announcement comes two days ahead of a deadline set for school districts to present their reopening plans to the state.

McMaster said districts must give parents the option to enroll students in virtual schooling if they don't feel comfortable with returning to the traditional classroom setting.

"Parents need to have a choice," McMaster said.

The Aiken County School Board voted Tuesday night to accept a hybrid model of learning proposed by the district's Back to School Task Force, which would include two days of traditional learning and three days of virtual learning.

The Aiken County school district also offers Aiken Innovate, a virtual-only school for grades K-12, which is currently accepting enrollment. The deadline to enroll in Aiken Innovate is July 20. 

The Aiken County school district's plan also allows for elementary students to possibly return to traditional learning full time starting Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, if the rate of spread of COVID-19 at the time makes them think it is safe to do so. 

McMaster said districts must take "every step" to allow for traditional learning five days a week in schools and asked school districts to move the first day of school to Sept. 8 to allow for proper planning.

The first day of school in Aiken County is currently planned for Aug. 17.

Following the press briefing, the Palmetto State Teachers Association (an organization of over 15,000 educators) released a statement "categorically" opposing McMaster's decision to push for traditional schooling five days a week, calling the move "irresponsible and dangerous."

"We believe this action would needlessly jeopardize the health and safety of our state’s 800,000 students and more than 50,000 teachers," the statement reads. "...While the members of PSTA desperately want to return to in-person instruction at the earliest possible time, the continued high rate of spread of the coronavirus poses a significant, and potentially deadly, health risk for students and staff...We believe districts should follow the recommendations of the AccelerateED task force. According to that report, schools should operate in a distance learning model as long as the rate of spread of COVID-19, as measured by DHEC, is 'high' in a county. Currently, 45 of our 46 counties fall into that category."

S.C. Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, also opposed the decision, calling it "premature" in a statement released Wednesday.

“This virus is deadly, and needs to be treated as such," Setzler said. "...The metric of success should not be how quickly we can return to normalcy, but rather the number of lives we can save by doing it responsibly.”

No executive orders were issued Wednesday, but McMaster said he has asked S.C. State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who was not present at the briefing, to not accept any plan that does not contain the two options of five-day in-person learning or full time virtual school for parents. 

According to reports from social workers, there has also been a 50% decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect. McMaster claimed there is a suspicion students are not being able to report such incidents because they are not in schools. 

McMaster said there is $216 million in CARES Act funding available to South Carolina school districts for implementing social distancing protocols. 

McMaster asked public districts give parents the options to send students to schools five days a week, but did not issue any executive orders Wednesday. 

Kristina Rackley is the health, education, and general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. To support local journalism and access more articles, subscribe by clicking here