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Horry County Schools will start back for the 2020-2021 school year on September 8, although questions still exist about what school will look like at that time.

“Regardless of what health conditions may be in our community at large, we are determined to provide our children and our employees with the appropriate, safe, and healthy learning environments for which Horry County School is known,” said Superintendent Rick Maxey.

During tonight’s special-called meeting, the Board of Education voted unanimously to move the start of school this Fall from August 17 to September 8, to have more time to finalize a solid plan for re-opening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The community is very, very eager to get some answers,” Vice Chairman John Poston said.

According to the staff surveys sent back to Horry County Board of Education, 96.4 percent of school employees said they intended to return to work this Fall. The district said 21,379 parent surveys were returned.

“The survey was not anonymous, we will follow up with people [employees] indicating they would not return to school,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Anderson.

The district’s Re-Opening Task Force subcommittees gave their reports to the board Monday night, regarding results to the parent surveys as well as sharing a rough draft of their re-opening plan.

Maxey said that the resources used for gathering the re-opening information included the S.C. Board of Education’s AccelerateED Task Force plan, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Maxey said that DHEC now has a system for determining the disease activity by county that will be reported each Monday, indicating a low, medium, or high-level risk determined by three different factors: the two-week incidence rate (number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people for the previous two weeks); the trend in incidence rate (determining whether the two-week incidence rate is increasing, stable, or decreasing); and the two-week percent positive rate, based on the percent of people testing positive out of the total test numbers.

Right now according to those factors, there is only one county in the entire state that could open with a hybrid model - the rest would be distance learning only.

“This means we would utilize an instructional plan that is connected to the level of spread,” Maxey said.

A low rate of spread would mean the possibility for face-to-face instruction, a medium spread would mean a hybrid plan with two days of in-person instruction and three days of distance learning, and a high spread would mean 100 percent distance learning.

The hybrid model won out as the main preferred alternative on the recent survey, if school could not begin face-to-face.

The district reiterated that the draft re-opening plan is a fluid document, as they are basing decisions on DHEC and CDC guidelines, which sometimes change daily.

Some K-8 students would be returning for the five mandated LEAP (Learn, Evaluate, Analyze and Plan) days for ELA and math, for face-to-face assessment activities and instruction based on identified needs. More details will be available on the use of the LEAP days soon.

“I’m just getting a lot of frustration, we have 45,000 students, which means about 100,000 parents and grandparents out there that are really frustrated,” said District 1 member Russell Freeman.

The topic of transparency was high on the list.

“I want the public knowing everything going on. We’re going to do the best we can and we’re going to get through it,” said Chairman Ken Richardson.

Masks, temperatures and quarantines

Public Health and Safety Committee chair Velna Allen said that schools would provide signage and sanitizing stations, reminding students about social distancing and hygiene. Desks would be six-feet apart if feasible, facing the same direction.

Allen also said they would discourage bookbags, lunch boxes, or any other handbags, and suggest clear bags if necessary.

“We could make a fast lane [in the bag search line] for students without bags, or with clear ones,” Allen said.

A point of contention was the fact that the re-opening plan currently requires masks for teachers, but only “strongly recommends” them for students.

“From what we see every day, and I’ve had COVID, your face mask on you protects other people…” said District 5 member Janice Morreale. “Why are we saying the teachers are supposed to protect the children, but the children can’t protect teachers or support staff or anyone else?”

Tammy Trulove, who is over the school nurses in the district and a member of the Re-Opening Task Force, said that they are following CDC guidelines that “encourage” face masks on children but do not require them.

“We stated very clearly this was going to be a fluid document,” Trulove said.

Richardson and Maxey addressed masks, and noted that if mandates were still in place within the local municipalities, the district would comply and have everyone in the building wearing masks. But Morreale noted that most of those mandates currently just extend until Labor Day.

According to the school’s recent survey of the staff, 64.98 percent of them indicated they did not have concerns about wearing a face mask in their job role.

Allen also said that they are encouraging daily self-checks of temperatures for students (and for parents to do with their younger students) because they will not be able to temperature check each child at the door of the school, due to time constraints.

Students or staff who develop symptoms at school will be asked to leave, quarantine and wait the normal 10-14 day period before returning, Allen said.

Morreale asked if a whole class would be quarantined if a teacher tested positive, or if a student in the class tested positive.

Trulove said that DHEC guidelines are 30 minutes or longer of contact in less than six feet of space, and Allen said if that direct contact had been made, they would ask those in close contact to quarantine for a number of days based on when symptoms started occurring.

Chief of Human Resources Mary Anderson said that there was a provision in the CARES Act providing leave for non-hourly employees for up to two weeks (or up to 80 hours) in the event they were asked to quarantine for two weeks.

“But they do have to provide medical documentation,” Anderson said.

Anderson also noted that if more than one exposure happened and another quarantine was needed, that would require use of the employee’s sick time.

Morreale also asked if the schools would have to pay for the exposed student testing, and Allen said thus far, the schools won’t be paying for a test.

Morreale also asked if substitute teachers had been asked if they were willing to come back, and the consensus at that moment was that no, they had not been surveyed specifically.

“Say we’re in a hybrid schedule, and we have a teacher get the virus, and then you need a sub but don’t have one, you can’t just say ‘Oh there’s no sub’ and students get pushed into other classes. With distancing we can’t do that,” Morreale said.

Richardson acknowledged that after the reading of the draft Monday night there would be many, many questions. All questions received by board members will be compiled into one document that would be available to the public soon. 

Buses and food services

Chief of Support Services Daryl Brown said that a number of options were on the table for serving meals, but all of them ultimately end with students eating in their classrooms. 

Lunches may be similar to those used during summer feeding, Brown said, something easily packaged, and easy to get to the classrooms, but nutritious.

Brown said the district would adhere to DHEC guidelines for staffing, cleaning, and social distancing on buses, and they would only fill buses to 50 percent capacity.

Boone Myrick, chief academic officer, said that 53.1 percent of survey responses indicated their student would not be using bus transportation.

They would also seat family members together, and have specific loading and unloading procedures to limit exposure.

Brown and Morreale discussed the possibility of extra support staff to help with distancing in restrooms and during class changes.

The district even discussed the possibility of having students stay in one classroom all day, but have the teachers change classes.

“We’re in a learning curve, in the middle of an ever-evolving situation,” said District 11 board member Shanda Allen.

District 6 member Helen Smith acknowledged that high school plans may need to look different because of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) specialized classes that may only have 10-12 students in them.

Myrick indicated that teachers would be receiving significant professional development regarding how to make distance learning better, and said it would not look like it did in the spring when it was thrown together in a matter of days.

Morreale asked Maxey at what point will the district decide how to open regarding the virus spread guidelines, and how often that spread information could change.

“The report will be posted online for school districts to access every Monday. Even though as you trend into ... I hope into low [spread], you’d have to have at least a week’s notice to do that. From one Monday to the next, that’s the only possible answer that I’m aware of,” Maxey said.

The draft report given to the board also included more information from Myrick on academic details, as well as from attorney Kenny Generette regarding measures taken for Equity and Family Needs, and also from Executive Director of Elementary Schools Mark Porter on the topic of Social-Emotional Health.

Richardson said that state Superintendent Molly Spearman's office was asking for districts to submit their re-opening plans to them by this Friday, July 17, but Superintendent Maxey said that an extension was available if needed. 

See the full document of the draft re-opening plan and survey results HERE.

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