State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman met with the COVID-19 Public Education Committee on Wednesday to clarify some questions regarding school re-opening concerns.
Many media outlets have reported that districts around the state are announcing their re-opening plans, but Spearman said those stories have been misleading.
“We have not approved a single plan yet,” Spearman said. “They have approved the plan they are going to send to the [state] department. We are very close to announcing some of the plans approved. We hope in the next day or two to have an announcement to have first approval of some plans.”
Spearman said that she had the authority to mandate certain requirements, and these plans have to be approved by the S.C. Department of Education.
She said that 35 districts requested an extension beyond the July 17 due date, which includes Horry County Schools, who said they will present their proposed plan to the Board of Education at their August 3 meeting.
“With the Governor’s (McMaster) request last week for opening schools, many communities decided they needed to go back to the drawing board,” she said.
Spearman said they are looking at every aspect of the plan and asking questions about whether districts have set high expectations, how they are measuring academic success of students, and how is attendance going to be taken.
In a recent Horry County Board of Education meeting, it was announced that attendance awards like Perfect Attendance will not be given out for this upcoming school year.
The importance of having face-to-face interaction, even if only for a short time, is important for teachers and administrators to put their eyes on students, especially those who may not have responded well, or at all, to virtual learning last spring.
“There must be initial contact or intermittent contact,” Spearman said, noting the estimated 12,600 students across the state that are listed as homeless.
Spearman said that education will look very different this Fall, especially for those schools that are deciding to go 100 percent virtual.
“The educational experience we went through from March 16 can be called emergency learning. We had to make a decision about attendance and all were counted present. Some were able through learning management systems to be engaged every day, others were using pencil and paper. That will not be the case when school reopens. Attendance will be taken every day,” Spearman said.
She told the committee that they are in the midst of plans for identifying students in need of internet access and decides and allocating resources for those students.
“If there’s some good things that have come from the pandemic, there’s a focus we all have together now on improving broadband internet access to students across the state,” she said.
Dr. David Mathis, deputy state superintendent, said that thus far they are seeing a lot of the hybrid A/B model in the plans submitted, meaning students are only in the classroom two or three days a week with the populations of students more spread out for social distancing.
“We are also seeing those who are offering full face-to-face at this point as well,” Mathis said, saying that if schools move to review and update their plan at some point later in the Fall, they would have to update their plan with the SCDOE for a review.
There may be flexibility for families who decide to begin this year in a virtual setting but decide face-to-face is okay in the spring.
Currently the guidelines for how to open schools are based on the positive COVID-19 test rates, and whether numbers are trending up, staying stable, or going down.
Spearman said updated guidelines will be coming soon regarding bus capacity, which currently is 50 percent capacity in the current recommendations.
The committee asked what happens if a teacher or students tests positive, what gets closed down, if anything.
“There is exact protocol on how to handle that, not only in the classroom, school, and on the bus. That does not necessarily mean … if one teacher becomes infected, or one child … that does not mean the whole school closes down, and maybe not even the whole class,” Spearman said, noting that with the amount of families choosing to go virtual may mean less students in person which will make the classroom safer for teachers.
Special education and students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were also a topic of conversation, including trying to work with Medicaid to get reimbursement for sessions that are mandated to be face-to-face but they have not been able to meet in that manner.
Spearman said they were not getting reimbursed for everything, only some waivers, she said.
“Parents are very concerned that if these school doors don’t open five days a week, will their children be left out of these valuable resources that allows that family to continue cohesively under one roof?” said Representative Raye Felder, of the COVID-19 Public Education Committee.
Mathis said that the department has asked for responses from families with students with IEPs and are working to ensure that the IEPs are carried out. He said they have someone from those different offices involving special populations that will read those sections of the reopening plans and “make sure they meet the letter of the law.”
As for teachers and working parents concerned about what to do with their children if a hybrid schedule is chosen, Spearman said they realize this is a serious concern, saying that she has heard of some businesses offering a way for people to bring their children to work, and she plans to meet with the faith community to find out if there is a way that churches could help as well.
“We need to be working harder at that,” she said.
Committee member Rep. Terry Alexander said that he doesn’t see confidence from the teachers regarding reopening.
“We’ve made teachers to be bad people now. I don’t want that … some of them are getting that message because there is no clarity,” Alexander said. “We need to make it as clear as possible that there are other options available. We don’t know what is going to work yet. We really have no clue. Once we give our teachers and staff confidence that we are with them and support them, they will have confidence to come back to school safely.”
Spearman agreed that the number one concern in re-opening is safety.
Check back with My Horry News for more updates regarding school re-opening plans.