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The Horry County School Board on Monday agreed to purchase 32 acres in Conway for a new middle school.

The property, located on El Bethel Road between Dunn Shortcut Road and S.C. 378 in Conway, will cost the district $546,400, or $17,075 per acre. 

District staff said the site is free of wetlands and is suitable for the project. 

A few years ago, when the district prioritized projects for the district, a replacement Whittemore Park Middle School was second in line after the current Horry County Education Center project. 

District spokesperson Lisa Bourcier confirmed the land is likely for that purpose but as of yet, no funds have been allocated for that project.

In a first-ever virtual school board meeting, trustees also received updates from district staff about what's happened during S.C. Governor Henry McMaster’s mandated school closure. 

“If you had told me a year ago that I’d be running a virtual meeting, I wouldn’t even know what you were talking about,” board chairman Ken Richardson said.

Superintendent Rick Maxey confirmed that the district will observe spring break from Friday through April 17 to give students and parents some respite from eLearning. 

He also reiterated statements from his letter on Friday to high school seniors and their families that as soon as more information is available about how the seniors will be celebrated, he will get those details out as soon as possible. 

“I know how important graduation ceremonies are to our children,” Maxey said. “It is a commitment on our part to do whatever we can to celebrate their accomplishments in senior ceremonies and programs if we can.”

Updates came from all of the chief officers regarding budgets, technology, facilities and more.

As far as the budget goes, Chief Financial Officer John Gardner said he is working on two different budgets, one with the state’s salary bump for teachers and one without. 

“I feel confident we won’t see the $3,000 [bump],” Gardner said. “I don’t think the state will be able to fund it this year.”

Chief Officer of Student Services Velna Allen said that that as of 8 a.m. on Monday, elementary schools had distributed 5,676 iPads, middle schools had distributed 5,480 chromebooks, and high school had distributed 1,147 laptops. 

The number in high schools was lower because students already were allowed to have Dell laptops for home use. 

She said technicians were assisting parents and students with technology issues, as well as maintaining a help desk through emails and calls. Since March 23, they had answered 575 phone calls and 206 emails. 

Allen said that counselors (school, guidance, rehabilitative behavioral health services) are all working with students remotely on various issues. 

“We were very worried about our students with severe issues. Our counselors continue to provide services through online [methods] and phone calls,” Allen said. 

She said everything is “business as usual” for high school counselors working with individualized graduation plans (IGPs) and assisting with college applications, and that eighth-graders can look forward to a possible virtual transition meeting regarding readiness for high school next year. 

Allen confirmed there have been no athletic events.

“I have to say, contrary to what you may have seen on social media, there is nothing going on in athletics," she said. "We have been shut down.” 

Chief Officer of Human Resources Mary Anderson confirmed that all employees with a contract or statement of employment will continue to be paid throughout the school closures, and only temporary employees will not be paid. 

All the schools were cleaned after everyone left, according to Chief Officer of Support Services Daryl Brown, and all the kitchens at schools are being cleaned after staff uses them to cook the to-go meals for students.

Brown also said that 40 cases of Clorox wipes were being sent to schools as needed, and disinfectants were readily available at the schools. 

One hitch the district is dealing with is the fact that the state said Horry County Schools wasn’t on the schedule to receive the allotted 10 buses with WiFi to help students connect in remote areas until April 24. 

Board member Janice Morreale said she wanted to figure out a way to try and put something together with some district-owned buses in the meantime, thinking maybe any state stimulus money coming to the district might be used in that capacity. 

“Don’t spend it until you get it,” trustee Janet Graham said was her philosophy, since HCS has yet to know just how much of that $216 million stimulus would be coming to Horry County. 

Board member Helen Smith asked if the schools would be ready if the governor says students can return after the April 30 closure date. 

As far as facilities go, Brown said he couldn’t see why there would be an issue of the governor decides school could resume. 

“It’s like following a hurricane, which seems now like a minor inconvenience when you look at it in perspective,” Maxey said. “We’ll deal with it just like we dealt with being out and having to adapt to a virtual environment. Returning to normalcy would be something we would all embrace.”

The staff directed parents and students to their COVID-19 information page, accessible through their website at www.horrycountyschools.net, to find out more information about grading scales for each grade level and what to expect for how those grades are going to be calculated. 

“I’ve been in Horry County Schools a long time and I have never been more proud of being part of this school system than I am right now," Allen said. "They have stepped up to the plate and done what is right for our kids."

In other action, the board voted to change the name of the new Horry County Education Center to SOAR Academy, which stands for “Soar On After Return.”   

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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