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The Horry County Board of Education said Monday night that parents can expect an announcement by Wednesday about whether students can return to in-person instruction next week.

“We are in the process of monitoring the data,” said HCS Chief of Student Services Velna Allen, standing in for an absent Superintendent Rick Maxey. “I can tell you the one change that happened — since break, we’ve seen an influx of information. We are still getting reports from students and staff. We have added all of that to the dashboard. It continues to come in in large groups.”

Allen said school counselors are in the process of verifying student schedules, which should be available by Jan. 22, and parents will be emailed the schedules for second semester.

Parents and students were told just before the holiday break that the first two weeks of classes in January would be conducted via distance learning due to an expected spike in cases.

Board Chairman Ken Richardson has said parents would be given at least five days' notice if the method of instruction changes.

The district also sent letters to parents last week urging them to share any COVID-19 or quarantine information that their family dealt with over the distance learning timeframe with their child’s school nurse.

The more than $5 million plexiglass installation (paid for by the S.C. Board of Education) in classrooms is still underway, with 19 of 28 elementary schools completed, according to the district’s update Monday. District officials are anticipating finishing the installation in elementary schools by Jan. 18.

According to S.C. Superintendent Molly Spearman’s office, as of Monday afternoon 23 school districts in the state are engaged in full-time, face-to-face learning, while 22 districts are still on full-time virtual learning through the end of next week.

Twenty-five districts are currently in a hybrid instruction format, and nine districts have unknown education formats at this time.

Edi Cox and Lee James, the district administrators working with the K-12 HCS Virtual school, said the full-time virtual program will be available for students for the 2021-2022 academic year.

More than 10,000 students are enrolled in the K-12 district's virtual school, and Cox said based on feedback they are expecting at least half of those students to want to continue HCS Virtual into 2022.

James said the 2021-2022 school year for HCS Virtual would require more staffing.

“We would need a full-time staff at all grade levels dedicated to HCS K-12 Virtual, including an administrative team … assistant principals, principal … and several support staff positions would be needed,” James said.

District 1 board member Russell Freeman showed some appreciation for the teachers.

“We can’t say it enough, how great our teachers have been in every environment,” Freeman said. “I want to make sure we’re training them enough and not stretching them too thin.”

Chief Financial Officer John Gardner said they are planning on one principal for the HCS Virtual school, and two assistant principals for each elementary, middle and high school levels.

Richardson said there was a teacher shortage and a substitute shortage before COVID-19, so he wasn’t sure where the district was going to be getting these needed teachers for HCS Virtual later this year.

Quarantines directly affect the teacher population, Richardson explained, saying that if one teacher comes down with the virus but that teacher was around 14 other teachers, 15 teachers have to quarantine.

“That only has to happen at a couple of schools a couple of times and you have to shut the whole school down,” Richardson said.

District 4 member David Cox talked about a teacher he spoke with who was having to teach an elementary student who was also having to stop and help her kindergarten and first grade siblings with school too since the parents weren’t available.

“We have to be safe, but we have to get back in these brick-and-mortar schools. We can’t not do that. This is just one example. Think how many times [this is happening] … how many children [also] west of the waterway ... when single parents having to leave them at home,” Cox said. “We’ve got to do something. I don’t know what that something is but it's time to start [towards] more brick and mortar.”

Richardson expects a phased approach to school re-entry, despite his wish to have kids back in school five days a week.

Richardson said since the superintendent has the authority to close down any school with a virus spread concern, he expects that the reverse could also be true, where Maxey might allow the elementary students whose schools have plexiglass to begin to return in a phased approach.

In other board news:

Six board members were sworn in for their next term Monday night, including newcomers Howard Barnard for District 5 and James Edwards for District 9.

The others beginning their new terms are District 1’s Freeman, District 4’s Cox, and District 11’s Shanda Allen. District 8 member John Poston was unable to attend as he is still in the hospital battling COVID-19.

District 6 board member Helen Smith was honored for 20 years of service to the Horry County Board of Education in three different terms over the years.

The election of a new vice chairman was put on hold by the board until all board members can be present.

Barnard bested District 5’s Janice Morreale in the primaries, while District 9’s Chris Hardwick decided not to continue in his board position and Edwards won the primary.

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