McMaster’s better at closing schools than reopening them

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster needs to learn the Pottery Barn rule: If you break it, you own it.
In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the state, McMaster seemed not to hesitate at all in ordering the shutdowns of all public schools in South Carolina’s 46 counties. That was probably the right thing to do for health reasons, and it made the governor look decisive and bold.
But by July, as school boards across the state were struggling with enormous decisions about whether, when and how to reopen their schools, McMaster seemed to be offering little concrete advice on exactly what schools should do and when they should do it.
Except to say that by all means, we have to get the schools going again right away. No matter how high infection rates might be rising.
In a mid-July news conference, McMaster urged all public schools in the state to restart in-person classes after Labor Day. This was not an order, only a recommendation. The governor said it should be up to the parents to decide whether to keep their children home or not.
“We must educate every child in South Carolina,” said McMaster. “There’s nothing more essential, nothing more important we can do than educate the children of South Carolina. And, try as we might, we know that virtual education is not as good for most children than face-to-face in class … teaching with an excellent qualified teacher, of which we have an abundance.”
That’s a valid stance, but the punch wasn’t there. McMaster didn’t seem quite convinced of his own position. And another problem: Top state education officials were missing from his news conference.
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said she was all in favor of resuming in-person classes, but said safety had to come first.
“We cannot … turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world,” she said. “School leaders, in consultation with public health experts, are best positioned to determine how in-person operations should be carried out to fit the needs of their local communities. I remain committed to supporting them in this endeavor and will only approve those plans that offer high quality options and keep safety as their top priority.”
McMaster closed the schools with a bold hand, but there was little boldness or leadership seen when he decided they must be reopened. Essentially, it was left up to each district to do what local officials thought best, under the guidance of recommendations laid down by the state’s AccelerateED committee and backstopping by the state Education Department and health department.
This may all turn out well – or as well as can be hoped under COVID-19’s endless onslaught. But it’s a shame McMaster couldn’t be the leader in reopening our schools that he was in closing them.

Author: Rachel Howell

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