On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told South Carolinians he believes schools can safely re-open this Fall while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m your Vice President, but the most important title I’ll ever hold is D-A-D. I’m a proud father of three kids. I can tell you with my wife here … we would not hesitate to send them back to school. I’ve been looking at this data every day. I encourage any American, parents in particular, to do the same. Children without a serious underlying condition have a very low risk of serious outcomes to coronavirus,” Pence said.
Vice President Pence and his wife Karen joined South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster and a group from around the state for a roundtable discussion in Columbia regarding the re-opening of schools. The group included U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Anderson District Five School Superintendent Dr. Tom Wilson, S.C. Principal of the Year Dr. Akil Ross, and parent Janie Nealy.
“What keeps me up is our struggling readers,” said Dr. Wilson, whose school district will open to face-to-face learning in the Fall, with a virtual option available. “A lot of parents can’t work from home. If we don’t get these kids back in school, the hurt is going to last a generation.”
Wilson went on to say that he doesn’t play to the politics of the pandemic, and the biggest question he has is “Are we going to play football?”
Dr. Ross said that three things important for sustaining a successful re-opening is people, supplies, and confidence.
“We encourage them [schools] to open at their point of confidence,” Ross said, noting whether that means virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face.
Janie Nealy, a parent of three children and a former teacher, spoke to the roundable participants about her four-year-old son Marsh, who has Down Syndrome.
“Marsh, out of the three [children], has felt the loss of school most dramatically,” Nealy said, saying he lost many of his important learning supports. “It was like falling off an early intervention cliff.”
Nealy said she was not dismissing the seriousness of the virus, but the long-term consequences of isolation could be very serious for all children.
“Choice must be the center of this conversation. There cannot be a take it or leave it approach,” Nealy said.
“Millions and millions of children rely on services only available at their school … it is vitally important that we re-open our schools,” Pence said.
Pence said that the state is in a better place to respond to the pandemic than it was two or three months ago, noting the increase in testing, development of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the speed of the work going on with a possible vaccine for the virus.
Pence praised McMaster for “putting the people of South Carolina back to work”, saying the unemployment rates have dropped from 12 percent to nine percent.
DeVos told the crowd that she thought it was important to get children back to school.
“The science on this is clear, and it’s only growing stronger. It isn’t a question of health versus safety. It’s a question of health versus health. They need to receive services at school, and be with friends …” DeVos said.
McMaster came under fire Monday for his announcement that $32 million of a $48 million allocation of CARES Act funding was going towards helping to fund 5,000 private school tuition grants.
DeVos praised McMaster’s decision.
“[The grants] will ensure a student’s personal and family circumstances don’t limit them from accessing the best education possible. It’s a model the nation should follow. It’s the President’s vision for every American student, it’s why he wants to pass school choice now,” DeVos said.
She went on to say that the Trump Administration was going to “fight for kids to go back to school safely” and added that “when assigned schools fail to rise to the challenge, parents have a right to send them somewhere else.”
Many teachers across the county and the region have been vocal on social media in their opposition to McMaster's re-opening statements, and the statewide advocacy group SC for Ed plans to hold a #VirtualUntilSafe Action Week next week, including socially-distanced “Motor March Protests" and local demonstrations.
"As an organization, SC for Ed will never support public funds going to private schools. To truly help schools and students, the governor must take actions to reduce the spread of the virus, such as requiring masks and shutting down areas of high spread, rather than making unfunded demands on public schools while overtly pushing a 'school choice' agenda that leaves our poorest and most vulnerable students and families with no choice," said SC for Ed in an official statement Monday.
Pence moved on to discuss nursing homes, and said that by the end of this week, rapid COVID-19 tests would be available in all nursing homes across the nation.
Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said that nursing home residents have been separated from family during this difficult time, and that testing can help identify residents and staff that are infected, and the testing will enable the centers to eventually allow visitors to see their families.
Pence went on to say that the rising number of cases across the SunBelt was “very serious” and echoed McMaster in saying that we should all “be doing what we should be doing” by social distancing, wearing masks, and practicing personal hygiene.
When asked if he would take more stringent measures if Americans continued to not follow these practices, Pence emphasized following science and data, and asked young people under age 30 to heed the warnings and take care of themselves.
“It’s always a good idea to wear a mask, particularly young people, none of whom would ever want to expose [anyone vulnerable]. We need young people to do their part as well,” Pence said.
He went on to focus on parents, and said the administration is supporting efforts at the state level and with local schools to do everything in their power to see that no student or faculty member loses their life from the virus.
“We think we can safely re-open schools. The risk to children is very low. We believe responsible plans can be developed that will protect students, faculty, the community, and the most vulnerable. My pledge to every parent is we are going to continue to work our hearts out,” Pence said.