The AccelerateED Task Force formed by S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman gave their final recommendations Monday for guidelines for districts to follow in forming their school reopening plans for the fall.
“I’m extremely concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in South Carolina. I don’t know how anyone could not be. We’ve got to change our ways, neighbors,” Spearman said in a Monday press conference. “If we want our children and grandchildren back in school, everybody’s got to do their part."
Spearman said that everyone should be wearing masks, washing their hands, and practicing social distancing.
“The focus must remain directed toward protecting the health, safety, and wellness of the students and staff,” said AccelerateED Task Force chair Kathy Coleman.
The task force said they received over 2,000 public comments from parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens, and has met 25 times since their April inception.
Their main focus was to provide the districts with a menu of options, because what will work in one community may not work in another, Spearman said.
The group came up with three scheduling modules - a “traditional” one with lower virus spread conditions, a “hybrid” one with medium spreading, or a full distance learning model if virus cases were to skyrocket.
These three plans have a few things in common - planning for self-isolation time and altered attendance policies for those who may contract COVID-19, class size caps, reducing class transitions, and taking considerations for the youngest students including ones with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and high schoolers in CTE programs that require hands-on instruction.
Spearman said the task force plans to work to provide a waiver from state and federally-mandated standardized tests for this school year, develop additional distance learning capabilities, and address the amount of funding schools will need to offset extra costs incurred for heftier cleaning protocols.
“I will pursue a waiver for state and federal mandated tests. I cannot guarantee this will become a reality without action from the U.S. Department of Education and other state leaders. I will do all within my power,” Spearman said. “I have been overwhelmed with outcries from teachers and parents pleading to consider this, and I’ve listened to them. I think that the time we could save by not doing all of the testing in the spring, and the anxiety that our teachers and students have, we need to relieve that as much as we can.”
Spearman said schools should be flexible in terms of which scheduling module they choose.
“A scheduling module that works in August may not work the whole year,” she said.
Teachers will also not be expected to prepare lessons for children physically in their classroom on the same day and virtually as well.
Preparing districts in the state that have less technological capabilities is also on their list, and S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster recently said the state was going to spend $20 million towards purchasing more hot spots for internet connectivity in the event of distance learning.
Dr. Brannon Traxler, physician consultant with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said DHEC is not recommending routine testing for all teachers and students who may decide to return to school.
“The best available test is really just a snapshot in time,” Traxler said. “It might be negative that day but you might still be incubating the virus and could be contagious a few days later.”
Traxler said DHEC certainly advocates for symptom checks and reminders to students, but did not confirm that daily temperature checks would be required upon entering the building each day, either.
“Those are details we’ll continue to evaluate, coming out of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control],” Traxler said.
Spearman did acknowledge there would be a need for more substitute teachers, as teachers may become ill or not feel safe coming back to the classroom face-to-face.
“There will be plenty of work … there are ways for alternative certifications for people to come and help us out,” Spearman said.
Some local parents reacted late last week to the initial recommendations, which included requiring masks for all the children, social distancing in the classrooms with desks facing the same direction, and also social distancing on school buses, with one child per seat and two empty rows in front of and behind them.
Whitney Crosby, a local parent who spends a lot of time volunteering at her four childrens’ schools, said her first thought was that the guidelines made school sound like a prison.
“Scheduled bathroom breaks, everyone facing one direction, basically no social interaction and no recess. It sounds depressing,” Crosby said.
Parent Sara Patty, whose children are in first and third grades, said that distance learning needs to be improved.
“They need to do better … They need to structure the distance learning better for under third grade. I don’t think they should do distance learning unless they can figure out a uniform way to do it for all grades,” Patty said.
As a grandparent raising a second grader in the school district, Cindy Acri wasn’t happy with the guidelines either.
“Anything less than normal is just not good. Secondly, while trying to create what they are calling a safe environment, when they are just making it unsafe,” Acri said.
She spoke to the transportation suggestions, saying that it would be impossible to meet those standards.
“If people drop off and pick up how long do you think that is going to take?,” Acri said. “Also, special ed students – they will be lost in this mess,” Acri said. “There are students who need the close contact of their teacher or aide. How in the world are they expected to thrive in an environment that limits their needs?”
She said she is faced with the choice of sending her child back to school or doing homeschool, and not everyone has that choice, she noted.
Julie Chowning, another parent in the district with a sixth-grader and eleventh-grader, said her thoughts on school reopening change daily.
“I’m not even sure what I think,” Chowning said. “I think the kids need to go to school but they have to figure a way to split [schedules]. I think that, then the next minute I’m all for online. I change as much as this virus.”
Her older child was accepted into the Academy of Art, Science, and Technology, and really wants to go, and her younger child is excited about starting middle school.
“I feel like daycares have been open, there has to be a way,” Chowning said.
Mary Ann Gordon has two school-aged children, said that her first thought was that the recommendations were “so disproportionate” to how the virus was acting.
“The number of reported COVID-positive pediatric patients has continuously hovered around one percent,” Gordon said. “If this demographic isn’t representing five percent of total cases, then there was, is, and will be no reason to adjust what was already working since it seems they were safe at school. We will fight for virtual learning to be continued if they insist on these measures.”
Crosby also said they are already looking into online and home school options “to be prepared.”
Patrick Kelly, a member of the AccelerateED Task Force, said in their meeting last week that the districts need to assess the needs and survey their families for preferences, then have a declaration of intent on how many plan to return, or may wish to continue with distance learning.
The Horry County School Board is in the midst of forming their School Re-Opening Task Force, which will be made up of parents, administrators, staff, and students, which will take these guidelines into consideration when forming their Fall plan, according to board chairman Ken Richardson.
Horry County Schools Superintendent Rick Maxey said during their June 18 meeting that the public will have information regarding their reopening plan decision at least 20 days before the anticipated start of school, and a survey will be sent out to parents before that time to get their input.
To view the final summary and copy of the guidelines the districts will receive, visit www.dedicationtoeducation.com
Check back with MyHorryNews.com for updates soon.