The Horry County Board of Education voted 11-1 Monday night to change their re-opening plan and keep schools in a hybrid instruction model until the district is able to return to five-day, in-person learning.
“We’re not abandoning our plan," vice chairman John Poston said. "We’re making smart adjustments from our experience. … What we have to do is what is best for the children of Horry County. We can keep adapting. … We’ve got to work on this thing together.”
District 1 member Russell Freeman cast the lone vote against the change.
Superintendent Rick Maxey recommended using the district’s own COVID-19 assessments in addition to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s data to determine each individual school's instructional models.
The extent of COVID-19 spread will vary depending on the school, Maxey said, noting that instructional models for individual schools will be adjusted accordingly. He said once plexiglass is phased in to classrooms, any future move to five-day instruction could begin with elementary grades and move up from there.
The district also intends to give parents five days of notice before a change in instructional models, and school officials reserve the right to use any local data in the future to decision-making.
Last week, in a move that made some parents happy and others upset, the school board decided to continue to have children attend school this week in a hybrid format instead of going full distance learning. The move was a departure from the previously approved plan, which called for switching to complete distance learning when COVID-19 numbers reached high levels in the DHEC Disease Activity Report.
During Monday night's meeting, Maxey said the reopening plan was never intended to be set in stone.
Parents who want five-day, face-to-face learning and teachers disappointed in the district’s departure from its original plan both came to Monday’s meeting to express their views.
“I’m here to show unity, and to say that it’s time for teachers to stand up and demand a bit more respect,” said Conway High School teacher Aryn Kavanaugh.
Virtual teacher Kyle Myers said the district should stick with the original plan.
“That’s what families made decisions on and now that’s all changed,” Myers said, as she gathered with about 20 other teachers in the district office parking lot before the meeting. “We are here for the teachers, students and families.”
Both sides signed up for public comment to address the board directly.
Parent Brandon Floyd, who has two children in the school district and a spouse who works in special education, said he believes the children need face-to-face instruction.
“What I don’t understand is … I don’t see this [virus] being something that is going to harm a lot of our kids,” Floyd said. “My wife, as a teacher, she wants to be with those kids; she thinks they need it.”
HCS Virtual teacher Cori Canada addressed the board, saying teachers are overworked, underpaid and don’t fully trust the district after the “back and forth” decisions recently.
“We are drowning, whether teaching virtually or in the building,” Canada said. “The last thing I want to see is good teachers leaving the profession because they can’t take it anymore.”
Board of Education Chairman Ken Richardson recently said he is unhappy with the reliability of DHEC's numbers, and he doesn’t want to “keep playing back and forth” with students.
Maxey and Richardson both reiterated that the Re-opening plan gives the district the leniency to make changes to the plan as needs arise.
“Our knowledge and understanding of the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve, and our protocols and plans will be updated as appropriate, and as more information becomes available,” the plan reads.
Ryan Brown with S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman’s office said last week that districts are not bound to one set of data to decide how their students will attend school.
“We encourage districts to use all the data available to them to make operational decisions in the best interests of their local communities,” Brown said. “Districts are not bound to use one single data source, but DHEC does strive to provide the latest data to help inform decision making.”
Brown said that having children in school five days a week in-person has been the goal and “one that we are constantly working towards.”
Richardson confirmed with HCS officials that there have been no known student or teacher fatalities due to COVID-19, but the district did lose one employee this past summer due to COVID-19-related symptoms.
Chief Financial Officer John Gardner said during Monday’s finance committee meeting that the state Department of Education is purchasing plexiglass to help prepare classroom desks for students’ return, and the state also is sending a second round of federal CARES Act funds.
Gardner said those funds will vary from $70,000 for smaller districts and up to $7-8 million for larger districts. He estimates the HCS allocation will fall in the $5-6 million range, and the district should find out in the next week exactly how much HCS will receive.
Chief of Support Services Daryl Brown confirmed that protective plexiglass shields for 32,500 students would be provided and paid for by SCDE to the tune of $3.8 million. That leaves about 12,000 students, Brown said, needing plexiglass at their stations, and Brown said he thinks the district can handle the cost for those remaining students.
As of Monday afternoon, the HCS COVID-19 dashboard showed 144 total historic cases, 25 current cases, including 16 student cases and nine staff cases across 15 schools. HCS’s system moves cases into a “historic” category after they are on the dashboard for a week. The HCS dashboard is updated at least twice a day.
DHEC’s data does not show specific numbers if the cases are below five, and their data is cumulative. DHEC’s information from Oct. 15 showed cases at 34 schools since they began tracking.
Check back with myhorrynews.com for more information details about attendance, quarantining and how HCS is coding students who leave school for having flu-like symptoms versus students who end up having COVID-19.
“I’m not part of any conspiracy theory,” said HCS Chief of Student Services Velna Allen, referring to rumors saying HCS was trying to hide COVID-19 cases with special coding in the attendance office.