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Carrying fewer students on school buses, extending school days and juggling distance learning with in-class learning were just a few ideas the state's AccelerateED Task Force discussed Thursday as they debated what classrooms should look like in the fall.

“This is all about our students and being able to give them the opportunities in school and extracurricular activities in a safe way,” state Superintendent Molly Spearman said.

Schools closed March 16 over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, and they stayed that way through the end of the school year. The task force was formed to come up with best practices for the state's school districts.

The suggestions discussed Thursday will be available to the public and stakeholders for input from Monday until next Thursday so that the committee can have one last review before sending them to school districts across the state. A recording of the meeting and any documents can be viewed at https://ed.sc.gov/newsroom/covid-19-coronavirus-and-south-carolina-schools/accelerateed-task-force/

Task Force member Alan Walters, the executive director for Safety and Risk Management for Georgetown County Schools, said that what is suggested now might change in the future.

The Task Force acknowledged that depending on the spread of COVID-19, some school districts will be able to open more freely than others, and there are a lot of unknowns.

“These are a snapshot in time – the conditions as of today. Certainly, that’s subject to change going forward,” Walters said.

Dr. Harrison Goodwin, Task Force member and Chesterfield County School District Superintendent, commented that everyone needs to understand that this Fall is going to look different.

“It’s not going to be feasible to leave school schedules the way they currently are,” Dr. Harrison said. “Things are going to take longer, they are going to be more complicated, and we need to hammer home that it’s going to cost more … things are not going to look the same.”

Walters and his Building and Student Services subcommittee said that each district should form a Re-Opening Team made up of administration, staff, parents, school improvement council and PTO members, and students, where that is age-appropriate.

The subcommittee suggested making sure each school has a school nurse available, saying there are 166 schools and programs in the state that do not have a full-time equivalent nurse.

“I’m not advocating for permanent hiring, I’m just looking at CARES funding. That’s going to be something that’s going to have to be considered. This is a situation that is not going to go away,” Walters said.

Spearman said that the state is receiving $1.9 billion in federal CARES funding.

“All of this should be settled in two weeks on how this [Fall school procedures] will be funded,” Spearman said.

Walters said they also want the General Assembly to remove the cap on earnings for retired education staff, in the event that vacancies may be hard to fill, and long-term substitutes might be hard to find.

Consideration also needs to be given to school visitor policies, and a communication plan must be in place to inform stakeholders of issues and allows feedback from them, Walters said.

The group also plans to address the shortage of student service providers by hopefully offering alternate pathways to certification, a short-term salary incentive program, setting a caseload standard for school psychologists, and making sure Social-Emotional Learning is embedded into any plan.

Walters said they hope to have information regarding health safety infrastructure grants to install plexiglass at front desk areas, and update HVAC filtering systems to lessen the chance of spreading COVID-19, and developing more cleaning protocols.

Major considerations for safety in the school buildings also extend into controlling student traffic flow, possibly staggering entry and release times, and figuring out a way to conduct emergency drills with social distancing protocols in place.

“It may mean extending the length of a school day,” Walters said.

It may also mean closing water fountains and giving out water bottles or allowing them to be brought from home.

Walters acknowledged that classrooms will be problematic as it is difficult to distance six feet, and that waiting areas outside restrooms and cafeterias will need to be marked on the floor with notations about social distancing.

As for masks, he said some teachers may need to wear face shields instead of masks to keep the vital face-to-face connection.

The subcommittees also mentioned that guidelines would need to be set on behavior expectations of students, with the possibility of new bullying situations. These situations could range from students who may want to wear more protective gear than others, some who may have a family member with the virus, or those who make threats to expose others to COVID-19 on purpose.

Classroom instruction

Patrick Kelly, coordinator of professional learning for Richland School District Two and a social studies teacher, heads up the Instruction Subcommittee and said there are no perfect solutions.

“With advanced planning, we’re confident our schools can make the best of the situation this Fall no matter what that might be,” Kelly said. “We are confident we can meet the needs of our students this Fall while putting their safety first.”

Kelly’s group addressed the possibility of more distance learning, whether part-time or full-time, but he said that now that they have time to plan, any distance learning options in the future will look different than what students experienced this spring.

“It’s not so much distance learning as it was 'emergency-deployed instruction',” he said, “[Distance learning] is going to look different than what we pulled off in the spring because we’ve got time to get ready for it,” Kelly said.

He said that a recent national survey showed that 30 percent of parents don’t want to send their children back to school, and 20 percent of teachers don’t want to go back into the traditional setting.

Kelly said 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.

“We need to know as much as we can right now to plan effectively,” Kelly said.

They looked at three different school scheduling models, 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, ones with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and high schoolers in CTE programs that require hands-on instruction.

Task Force member Dr. LaToya Dixon, director of elementary programs and gifted education for York School District, asked Spearman to request that the General Assembly waive minimum program and seat requirements, as well as standardized testing requirements.

“I’m not sure the results would have much meaning because of how different school is going to be,” Dixon said. “The teachers are going to make sure the students can learn and there will be a demonstration of mastery. It would be a welcome relief to teachers, educators and students ..."

Kelly also said they want to ensure a well-rounded education with access to the arts, health, ROTC and media centers, regardless of distance learning statuses.

Teachers would not be expected to teach in-person and online classes on the same school day, Kelly said, and parents would have access to more information and tutorials on how to help their student access needed assignments.

Spearman also acknowledged other world events affecting S.C.’s students.

“While COVID-19 has been a tremendous traumatic event for all of us, our students and faculty and communities have had another traumatic event with the death of George Floyd and the racial tension that’s been brought forth,” Spearman said. “As educators, it is our responsibility and I feel so committed to making change and having discussions with our students … it’s a separate issue that almost needs its own Task Force … we are committed to making change and having those discussions, and talking with students about their what their needs will be as we go back to school in the fall.”

Bus issues

Member Dr. Scott Turner, deputy superintendent for Greenville County Schools, said that transportation for students was literally the driving force on which option the districts open with in the Fall.

DHEC guidelines say buses should be only holding 50 percent of the students, meaning a bus meant for 77 students would only be allowed to carry 36.

“Some districts may be able to double up routes with low community spread and have a normal day, but others, that could not possibly happen,” Turner said. “There aren’t enough hours in the day, enough buses, or enough drivers … to get all of our students to school at 50 percent capacity.”

Turner also said that school districts who choose not to adhere to the 50 percent capacity guideline should consult their legal counsel and liability insurance because “we feel the district would be taking on liability for making that decision.”

They also suggested having assigned seating on the buses, loading back to front, maximizing ventilation, and having both drivers and riders wear masks.

“The operations pieces of this is really going to be a challenge for us,” Spearman said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever asked parents to not use the bus, but use their cars … but this is a time that we would appreciate parents considering if at all possible that they could drive their students to school, it would help us tremendously with capacity level on the bus.”

As for food service, alternative meal-serving models would be needed if cafeteria use is not feasible, unless some schools would be able to add more lunch periods to spread students out and provide more social distancing. Districts would also need to prepare for more costs of food service to provide meals-to-go when students aren’t in attendance for face-to-face instruction as well.

Kelly and Dixon both said that the pandemic has brought to light the great inequality issues between districts.

“I hope this doesn’t further divide between districts who have and who do not, or students who have, and who do not,” Dixon said. “We need to close the inequity gap so every student can meet the profile of a South Carolina graduate.”

Kelly agreed.

“This has laid bare to us the result of years of underfunding schools … the bill has come due,” he said.

Visit the AccelerateED Task Force website noted above to see the entire Thursday meeting, or to see the full set of suggested guidelines to be posted Monday for community input.

After next week’s public and stakeholder input, the guidelines will be revised and compiled for dissemination to school districts across the state.

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